OTTAWA — Newly minted Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Wednesday there is nothing “really new“ in the political rhetoric between Alberta and Ottawa around climate change this week, and shrugged off any suggestion his appointment will make that relationship more difficult than it already is.
Guilbeault is a former environmental activist from Quebec who has called the oilsands “dirty” and argued that pipelines and oil and gas expansion are not compatible with meeting Canada’s climate goals.
Elected in 2019, he was appointed to cabinet but not to the environment post many expected. Instead, he spent the last two years as minister of heritage while former cleantech CEO Jonathan Wilkinson shepherded through net-zero climate legislation and stronger greenhouse gas targets in the Environment Department.
There was talk in 2019 that Guilbeault’s appointment would have rubbed salt in the open sore that was the Ottawa-Alberta relationship. But that all changed Tuesday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau majorly shook up his inner circle, moving Wilkinson to Natural Resources and Guilbeault into Environment.
It was not, Guilbeault insists, at his demand.
“I was never promised anything and I never asked for anything either,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
But rub salt in the wound it has, with Conservative MPs critical of the decision and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warning that Guilbeault’s appointment to the environment portfolio sent a “problematic message” to his province about Ottawa’s plans for the oil and gas sector. He called Guilbeault’s “personal background and track record” on climate and oil and gas concerning.
Guilbeault dismissed any suggestion he will make the job of Ottawa-Alberta relations more thorny, pushing back with his own criticism of Kenney for skipping the United Nations COP26 climate talks that start next week in Scotland.
“I’m disappointed that Jason Kenney won’t be in Glasgow, other premiers will be there,” he said in a post-cabinet scrum Wednesday.
And he said Kenney using his appointment to pick a fight with Ottawa on climate action is just new lyrics to the same old song.
“Alberta has been trying to pick a fight with us on climate for quite some time,” he told The Canadian Press.
“They’ve taken us to court on carbon pricing, they’re taking us to court on environmental impact assessment. There’s nothing really new or surprising about that.”
Canada’s climate plan also isn’t changing with him in charge, said Guilbeault, noting it was not secret before and it’s not secret now that the plan is to curb emissions from every sector, including oil and gas.
Among his first priorities will be legislating or regulating an emissions cap on oil and gas, and then setting targets to force them downward over the next 30 years, in five-year increments.
The details of how and when are yet to be developed but Guilbeault said Wednesday the cap will be set at “current emissions” and go down from there.
The oil and gas industry produced almost 200 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, more than one-quarter of Canada’s total emissions. Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero, said climate action won’t be successful without getting those down.
She said the political will to do it has not been there before.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has instead tried to balance support for the fossil fuel sector with climate policy, without much success. Canada’s emissions are likely lower than they would have been without Trudeau’s climate policies, but they’re still about seven million tonnes higher than they were when he took office.
Almost all of that growth is due to oil and gas extraction and road transportation.
Guilbeault’s first job will be to sell Canada’s climate plan on the global stage. On Monday, the United Nations COP26 climate talks kick off in Glasgow.
Guilbeault is no stranger to COP meetings — this will be his 19th. But it’s his first from the government side of the table. He said Canada, like everyone else in the world, needs to do more to slow global warming, and that’s the message Canada will be pushing in Scotland.
The COP26 meetings, delayed one year by COVID-19, are intended to finalize the rule book for the Paris accord, including on such matters as how carbon emissions trading can work between countries, and what each country has to report about progress toward climate goals.