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What a Danielle Smith government could mean for the environment in Alberta

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Friday, October 7, 2022

By Drew Anderson Danielle Smith took to a stage in Calgary on Thursday after being elected the new leader of the United Conservative Party and proclaimed a new chapter for a province long-known for its testiness.  “It is time for Alberta to take its place as a senior partner in building a strong and unified Canada,” Smith said.  Her victory capped five months of campaigning to be the next premier of Alberta and marks the end of three combative and contentious years under the premiership of Jason Kenney, who focused much of his energy on fighting against those he saw as enemies of the province’s oil and gas industry — including the federal government.  Throughout the campaign, the focus was on Alberta autonomy and standing up for a province perceived to be under threat as the world churns and changes. The economy and inflation were top of mind. Ottawa, Justin Trudeau and Trudeau’s so-called climate police, too.  Missing, as candidates played to a devoutly conservative base, was much attention on the environment and climate change, unless in regards to how either of those two things could impact the economic well-being of Alberta.  It remains to be seen whether that will change as the new premier moves from wooing the base to convincing Albertans as a whole that the United Conservative Party deserves another chance to govern.  But on Thursday night, Smith, a former newspaper editorial writer and host on radio and television, was clearly focused on uniting the party around its opposition to federal environmental laws and healthcare policies such as vaccine mandates, which were adopted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.  “No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free. We will not have our voices silenced and censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or to travel,” she said. “We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue signaling Prime Ministers.” Sovereignty Act would take aim at emissions reductions, carbon tax  Smith did offer at least one glimpse into her thinking on climate change and the environment during the first debate of the campaign in July, and her answer was consistent with the current government. Asked about her priorities on the environment, she said she’s come full circle from 2012 when as leader of the Wildrose Party, she said the science wasn’t settled. She then advocated for the advantages of a net-zero future through carbon capture utilization and storage and transforming to a hydrogen economy.  “Once we get the issue of CO2 out of the way and people see that we are serious about solving it and getting there faster than anywhere else,” Smith said, “we also have to tackle the issues of air quality, of water quality, of making sure that we’re doing habitat protection which our farmers and ranchers do so well and I can’t wait to sell that message.” Smith’s support for net-zero targets, however, was denounced by fellow candidate and former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews, who said in a tweet that net-zero targets would “bankrupt” the province. Smith and her rivals said little else about the topic for the remainder of the race. “I think that’s really because the base that’s voting in this election, it’s not important to them, they don’t want to talk about it,” Janet Brown, a pollster based in Calgary, tells The Narwhal. “And the leaders [didn’t] want to raise issues that might inflame that core base.” Not only did the environment and climate drop off the radar, the tone of the rhetoric changed as well.  Danielle Smith posted this meme to her Twitter account during the campaign in response to the federal government hiring more environmental enforcement officers. It was part of a wider campaign of misinformation. One month after the debate, Smith was posting misinformation about Environment and Climate Change Canada hiring enforcement officers, part of a wider campaign by right-wing groups to stir up controversy by suggesting the officers were part of a plot to lock up Canadians who run afoul of climate regulations. Her contentious central platform plank, the proposed Sovereignty Act, offers the most compelling evidence that a Smith government won’t move aggressively toward climate action if it interferes with perception of provincial autonomy and wealth creation.  Her act, which she claims would allow Alberta to refuse to enforce federal legislation it disagrees with but which has widely been panned as unconstitutional and unworkable, doesn’t target specific legislation, though she has offered examples of what she’d like to see blocked.  Among those limited examples, she cites federal impact assessments, oil and gas emissions reductions — which she mischaracterizes as mandatory production cuts — and fertilizer emissions reductions — which she mischaracterizes as mandatory fertilizer reductions. On Oct. 4, she also told The Calgary Eyeopener that she wants to relitigate the carbon tax, after the province lost a Supreme Court challenge of the tax in 2021.  “We have new information,” she said. “We have a war in Ukraine. We have a world global increase in prices. We have global instability. We have an affordability crisis.” She reiterated that on Thursday to a cheering crowd, making it clear she intends to focus on the carbon tax as one more cost being piled onto Canadians as inflation takes its toll.  It’s the sort of thing University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young has characterized as “fantasy federalism” — proposals based on wishful thinking meant to excite supporters and with “no realistic chance of achieving their intended objectives.” Today’s rhetoric not ‘your grandpa’s alienation’ The leadership campaign and the heated rhetoric from most of the candidates fits into a long history of agitation on the prairies — and Alberta in particular. Farmers taking on Ottawa and the railways, Social Credit, the rise of the Reform Party and now a resurgence in separatism.  Young argues what is happening in the province now, however, “isn’t your grandpa’s Alberta alienation.” Anger has swelled as the world slowly moves away from the fossil fuels that have created the modern province and which Young says is inextricably linked to the conservative politics many have tried to tie to the province.  Jared Wesley, a political scientist from the University of Alberta, says a lot of the rhetoric has also been misleading.  “I think the courts have been pretty clear that the federal government has policy room in this space,” he says of climate policies.  He says any efforts to stop emissions reductions would only result in a delay.  Efforts by the largest producer of emissions in the country and the home to most of its oil and gas production to slow reduction strategies could have a big impact, particularly as the federal government moves to reduce emission on a tight deadline and aims to achieve net zero by 2050. That sort of failure could pose a problem for any leader who has promised to fight back and who fails. Jason Kenney, the departing premier, is just one example. Jason Kenney, the outgoing premier of Alberta, grew increasingly unpopular because he couldn’t follow through on some of his tough talking promises, according to pollster Janet Brown. Alberta Newsroom / Flickr “He was elected because he was talking tough. He became unpopular because he wasn’t following through on them,” Brown says. Smith also previously found herself targeted by similar anger in 2015, losing a nomination battle to represent her party in that year’s election after she crossed the floor from the Wildrose to join the Progressive Conservatives led by the late Jim Prentice, who was the Alberta premier at the time. She would later return to her roots in the media, hosting a Global News radio show for the next six years, before resigning in January 2021 due to what she described as the “mob of political correctness.” Campaign rhetoric an issue for industry A disappointed and angry base isn’t the only thing the new premier might have to contend with. As the campaign ends and the task of governing comes into focus, there will be pressure to walk back some of the promises made.  Speaking at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce lunch on Oct. 4, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was diplomatic when it came to the topic of Alberta’s next premier and working with them.  “My view is that while you sometimes see in the press, heated rhetoric between governments, I will tell you that behind the scenes the discussions are typically far more collaborative,” he said.  “And I look forward to working with whoever wins the UCP leadership and forms the next government in Alberta, to advance the interests of Albertans.” But he also emphasized what he says is a consensus between the government and the oil and gas industry that emissions need to come down.  Debra Yedlin, the CEO of the Chamber was more direct. “We are very concerned about certainty for businesses and certainty for investment, and what we’re looking for in new leadership is to make sure that that certainty for investment and the ability to attract capital, talent and opportunity in this province is maintained,” she said.  Despite the increasing emissions from the province’s oil and gas industry, as well as a range of ongoing and significant issues — from abandoned and orphaned wells to wildlife impacts to tailings ponds — the industry has voiced support for net-zero targets as long as governments are there to support them.  A focus on attracting investment through improved environmental performance would put the large players in conflict with the rhetoric of the campaign. Shell’s Quest carbon capture and storage facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. The oil and gas industry in Alberta has been pushing for government help for net-zero targets and recently received federal tax credits for carbon capture and storage. Photo: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press But the rhetoric could also come into conflict with the wider electorate — a different cohort than the base which elected Smith.  “The idea that Albertans don’t care about climate change, and we’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging Luddites, I mean, that’s not the case,” Brown says.  According to a 2021 Abacus Data poll, just 12 per cent of Albertans believe there is little or no evidence the Earth is warming, compared to seven per cent nationally. Brown’s own research for the Pembina Institute has shown 68 per cent of Albertans support achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.  Brown says a lot of the contention comes down to timing and tactics rather than an outright resistance to things like achieving net-zero emissions.  Previous Alberta governments have faced backlash over rollbacks The outgoing government focused its environmental energy into policies and regulations that would encourage the energy sector to pivot — to use natural gas to produce hydrogen, to capture carbon to keep the oilsands alive.  But it was no stranger to more controversial attempts to rewrite environmental norms.  It faced enormous backlash when it tried to quietly rewrite the rules for open-pit mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies and faced a prolonged and vocal campaign against moves to remove sites from the provincial park system.  “Albertans have proven particularly attuned to environmental issues, like damage on the eastern slopes and so on,” Wesley says.  “That’s an encouraging sign, in that I don’t think today you’d see even a conservative politician openly campaigning to roll back environmental regulations.” That doesn’t mean the environment will become a priority. Wesley and Brown both say it never floats to the top of issues that are top of mind for Albertans. And right now, it’s the economy and the cost of living that are most occupying voters. So that encouraging sign that Wesley highlighted about not rolling back environmental regulations does come with a caveat.  “They’re not going to openly campaign [on environmental regulations] and as a result they can pay the price at the polls for having some kind of hidden agenda,” he says.  But Thursday night, the campaign now done, Smith was back to talking about emissions, but clearly in the context of economic gains. Alberta, she said, could be the solution to the world’s energy needs, providing LNG in the place of coal and helping Europe navigate its current energy storm.  “We can become the nation that develops the breakthrough technologies that make continued fossil fuel use not only possible but preferable for fueling the energy needs of this generation and the next,” Smith said.  She’ll start that next campaign on Oct. 11 when she says she’ll be sworn in as the next premier — with no seat in the legislature and no election until May of next year.

By Drew Anderson The new premier of Alberta was chosen by party faithful after six ballots on Thursday. As a candidate she spread misinformation and promised to challenge the carbon tax, what will she do for the environment as premier?

Read the full story here.
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Container deposit schemes reduce rubbish on our beaches. Here’s how we proved it

Volunteers have been collecting and sorting washed-up rubbish on the beach for years. Thanks to their efforts, we have data on whether container deposit schemes help the issue.

ShutterstockOur beaches are in trouble. Limited recycling programs and a society that throws away so much have resulted in more than 3 million tonnes of plastic polluting the oceans. An estimated 1.5–1.9% of this rubbish ends up on beaches. So can waste-management strategies such as container deposit schemes make a difference to this 50,000–60,000 tonnes of beach rubbish? The Queensland government started a container deposit scheme in 2019. We wanted to know if it reduced the rubbish that washed up on beaches in a tourist hotspot, the Whitsundays region. To find out, our study, the first of its kind, used data from a community volunteer group through the Australian Marine Debris Initiative Database. It turned out that for the types of rubbish included in the scheme – plastic bottles and aluminium cans – the answer was an emphatic yes. Read more: Spotting plastic waste from space and counting the fish in the seas: here's how AI can help protect the oceans Container deposit schemes work After the scheme began, there were fewer plastic bottles and aluminium cans on Whitsundays beaches. Volunteer clean-up workers collected an average of about 120 containers per beach visit before the scheme began in 2019. This number fell to 77 in 2020. Not only that, but those numbers stayed down year after year. This means people continued to take part in the scheme for years. Rubbish that wasn’t part of the scheme still found its way to the beaches. However, more types of rubbish such as larger glass bottles are being added to the four-year-old Queensland scheme. Other states and territories have had schemes like this for many years, the oldest in South Australia since 1971. But we didn’t have access to beach data from before and after those schemes started. So our findings are great news, especially as some of these other schemes are set to expand too. The evidence also supports the creation of new schemes in Victoria this November and Tasmania next year. These developments give reason to hope we will see further reductions in beach litter. Read more: Spin the bottle: the fraught politics of container deposit schemes The data came from the community To find out whether the scheme has reduced specific sorts of rubbish on beaches we needed a large amount of data from before and after it began. The unsung heroes of this study are the diligent volunteers who provided us with these data. They have been recording the types and amounts of rubbish found during their cleanups at Whitsundays beaches for years. Eco Barge Clean Seas Inc has been doing this work since 2009. In taking that extra step of counting and sorting the rubbish, they may not have known it at the time, but they were creating a data gold mine. We would eventually use their data to prove the container deposit scheme works. The rubbish clean-ups are continuing. This means we’ll be able to see how adding more rubbish types to the scheme will further reduce rubbish on beaches. The long-term perspective we can gain from such data is testament to this sustained community effort. Read more: Local efforts have cut plastic waste on Australia's beaches by almost 30% in 6 years There’s still more work to do So if we recycle our plastics, why do we still get beaches covered in rubbish? The reality is that most plastics aren’t recycled. This is mainly due to two problems: technological limitations on the sorting needed to avoid contamination of waste streams inadequate incentives for people to reduce contamination by properly sorting their waste, and ultimately to use products made from recycled waste. Our findings show we can create more sustainable practices and a cleaner environment when individuals are given incentives to recycle. However, container deposit schemes don’t just provide a financial reward. Getting people directly involved in recycling fosters a sense of responsibility for the environment. This connection between people’s actions and outcomes is a key to such schemes’ success. Read more: The new 100% recyclable packaging target is no use if our waste isn't actually recycled Our study also shows how invaluable community-driven clean-up projects are. Not only do they reduce environmental harm and improve our experiences on beaches, but they can also provide scientists like us with the data we need to show how waste-management policies affect the environment. Waste management is a concern for communities, policymakers and environmentalists around the world. The lessons from our study apply not only in Australia but anywhere that communities can work with scientists and governments to solve environmental problems. The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

How California lawmakers greenlit ‘any flavor of affordable housing you could possibly want’

A patchwork of bills are giving housing developers and local governments more options to reduce red tape for housing projects.

In summary A patchwork of bills are giving housing developers and local governments more options to reduce red tape for housing projects. You may not have seen the headlines (there weren’t any). You may have missed the raucous debate (there wasn’t much of one). But with the end of the legislative session last week, California is now on the verge of laying down a welcome mat for most major affordable housing projects across the state. That’s not because of a single bill, but a patchwork of current and former legislation that, taken together, “basically covers any flavor of affordable housing you could possibly want to build,” said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, an affordable housing development nonprofit. Homes designated for low-income occupants, like all housing projects, face a gauntlet of potential challenges and hold-ups that add to the already exorbitant cost of affordable housing in California. Those hurdles include lawsuits filed under the wide-ranging California Environmental Quality Act, extensive public hearings and other forms of opposition from local government. Now, affordable housing projects — in most places and most of the time — may soon be exempt from all that, fitted out in a suit of procedural armor made up of some half a dozen bills and laws. A bill now sitting on the governor’s desk would cover up one of the last chinks in that armor. Assembly Bill 1449, authored by two Democratic Assemblymembers, David Alvarez of San Diego and Buffy Wicks of Oakland, would exempt certain affordable apartment developments from review under CEQA. To qualify, projects would have to be located in dense urban areas, set aside each unit for someone earning less than 80% the area median income and abide by stricter labor standards, among other requirements.  Though modest and technical-sounding, that’s unusually broad for new construction in California.  “I do think it’s gonna be very consequential but it’s kind of flown under the radar,” Alvarez said. His explanation why: “The politics of where Californians are and certainly where the Legislature is — we want to see results. We want to see housing being produced.” Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story D David Alvarez State Assembly, District 80 (Chula Vista) Expand for more about this legislator D David Alvarez State Assembly, District 80 (Chula Vista) Time in office 2022—present Background Small Business Owner Contact Email Legislator How he voted 2021-2022 Liberal Conservative District 80 Demographics Voter Registration Dem 47% GOP 20% No party 26% Campaign Contributions Asm. David Alvarez has taken at least $192,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 9% of his total campaign contributions. Taken together with a handful of other bills and current laws, said Mark Stivers, a lobbyist with the California Housing Partnership, which co-sponsored AB 1449, the new legislation “effectively make it possible for affordable housing providers to develop nearly all viable sites in California by-right and exempt from CEQA review.” Speeding up approval for these projects comes with a trade-off. Environmental justice organizations, labor unions and various opponents of new development see CEQA as a vital tool to weigh in and on what gets built, where and and under what terms.  “Our communities rely heavily on CEQA to be able to get more information about proposed developments that might be contributing to further pollution,” said Grecia Orozco, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.  Local activists also often flood the public meetings of city councils and planning boards to pressure elected officials to block unpopular projects or extract concessions from developers.  Whether AB 1449 and a handful of similar bills become law is now up to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Supporters have reason to be optimistic. The Newsom administration is pushing local governments to approve an unprecedented 2.5 million additional homes by 2030, he called the CEQA process “broken” and in the spring he rolled out a package of bills aimed at speeding up environmental challenges to projects — though housing was not included.  He has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the bills now sitting on his desk. A patchwork of carve-outs  The Alvarez-Wicks bill isn’t the first legislative effort to grease the skids for new affordable housing.  Two others, both authored by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, would force local governments to automatically approve apartment buildings in housing-strapped parts of the state and most affordable housing projects on the properties of houses of worship and nonprofit colleges, so long as they comply with a list zoning, affordability and labor requirements.  A third piece of legislation by San Jose Democratic Sen. Dave Cortese exempts the decision by local governments to fund affordable housing projects from environmental challenges, too. Newsom already signed it. “We want to see housing being produced.”Assemblymember David alvarez, democrat, chula vista Still awaiting the governor’s pen are a handful of bills that make it more difficult to stall housing projects though environmental lawsuits in general. That includes a bill by Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, that would make it easier for courts to toss out environmental challenges they deem “frivolous” or “solely intended to cause unnecessary delay.” Another by Assemblymember Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, would give local officials a deadline by which to approve or deny a project’s environmental review. The Ting proposal was fiercely opposed by many environmental activists and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group that represents many unionized construction workers. The bill would also make it more difficult for courts to award legal fees to groups that sue to block projects through CEQA. J.P. Rose, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which regularly brings such suits, called that provision “the largest weakening of CEQA in recent history.” The fact that this long list of bills passed the Legislature — some by healthy margins — amounts to a notable political shift, said Christopher Elmendorf, a law professor at UC Davis who advised Ting on the bill. “I think it illustrates that a sea change is underfoot in how people are starting to think about these environmental review laws,” he said, though he noted that the shift in California is still modest compared to those underway in other states.  Earlier this year, the Washington legislature nearly unanimously passed a law to exempt virtually all new urban housing from that state’s environmental protection law. The grand bargain continued Many of the California bills build on a law passed last year that streamlines affordable housing construction along commercial corridors.  In cobbling together the law, its author, Wicks, struck a compromise: In exempting certain housing projects from environmental challenge and other local hurdles, developers would pay workers a higher minimum wage, provide them with health care benefits and abide by other stricter labor standards. That trade was the key to winning the support of the state carpenters’ union and breaking up a legislative logjam that had stymied housing production bills for years.  It also provided a template for Wiener’s two streamlining bills this year, along with the Alvarez-Wicks CEQA exemption proposal.  “That really laid the foundation for those of us who did work in the housing space this year,” said Alvarez. “Our communities rely heavily on CEQA to be able to get more information about proposed developments that might be contributing to further pollution.”Grecia Orozco, staff attorney, the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment Not every pro-housing advocate or CEQA critic is so content with the bargain. “A lot of these bills help a little,” said Jennifer Hernandez, a land use attorney at the law firm Holland & Knight, who has catalogued CEQA challenges to housing projects for years. But she notes that swapping out the threat of environmental litigation with higher payroll expenses just replaces one cost with another.  In practice, she said, these exemptions are only likely to clear the way for substantial new housing construction in higher cost areas where developers can make up the difference by charging higher rents to non-subsidized residents. “You really need premium rentals to pay for those higher labor standards,” she said. But for many affordable housing developers, it’s still a trade worth making. “You’ve got really strong laws, clear exemptions, and an attorney general who’s willing to step up and say you got to build it,” said Mandolini with Eden Housing, who has been working on housing in the state for more than two decades. “This is the best it has been in California…If this had all existed 20 years ago, we might have built a lot more housing a lot faster.”

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