• Fri. Dec 8th, 2023

Alberta is well positioned for the future, says former UCP environment and energy minister

Alberta is well positioned for the future, says former UCP environment and energy minister

Sonya Savage, as energy minister under former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, was tasked with selling an unpopular effort to open up the Rocky Mountains to coal mining, which wasn’t even her idea.

Later, as environment minister under Kenny’s successor, Premier Daniel Smith, they saw her reservations about giving tax breaks to oil companies to clean up wells undermined by their new boss’ enthusiasm.

Savage didn’t even want Smith as leader, instead campaigning for former finance minister Travis Toyes. She did not contest the recent elections.

But don’t look to her for criticism or sour grapes.

“Policy changes,” she shrugs over the phone from British Columbia, where she spends most of the summer.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Savage said four years of United Conservative rule had prepared the province well for the green economy of the future. Also, she credits Kenny with being kicked out by the party he helped create.

“I’m (sorry he’s gone),” she said. “No one has worked harder than Jason Kenney to get Alberta to a place where it is competitive and attractive to investment,” she said.

Things didn’t start out so well for her. Shortly after being elected energy minister, Savage became the face of the government’s ill-fated decision to roll back a 1976 policy protecting the Rocky Mountains from coal mining. Opposition to the move was swift, widespread and furious.

“(The idea) came up through various sources,” she would say, although other media reported that UCP candidates such as Jason Nixon had discussed the possibility with coal miners even before the government was elected.

“It certainly wasn’t my idea. It was clearly a mistake, moved too quickly, too quickly. It was a long road to get (the policy) back.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to shake the province’s economy, and the collapse in oil prices threatened to undermine its economic backlog. Savage praises Kenny for looking past quarantines and mask mandates.

The Prime Minister spoke to each of us saying, “What does recovery look like after the pandemic?”

It made her look at “where the world is going and understand some things that haven’t been done in a decade.”

Savage says further work on carbon capture and storage stemmed from Kenney’s question about regulations that allow development of critical minerals, geothermal power and hydrogen.

“There has never been another prime minister in our history who has achieved as much as he has,” Savage said.

Savage said Kenney’s look-ahead attitude carried over to the environment ministry, where she delivered the province’s first climate change strategy in April. That policy is now in Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz’s mandate letter.

“I’m really happy to see the premier using that policy and still speaking the language of net-zero and using that plan to keep Ottawa on its path,” Savage said.

But that policy, which prescribes a series of studies, commissions and reports without deadlines or interim targets, has been criticized as a plan to draw up a plan while the rest of the world begins to take action. Savage makes no apologies.

“It’s a lot of hard work to find practical pathways to get (to net-zero),” she said. “Behind the scenes, they’re working on sector-by-sector technology paths and costing them, figuring out how far and how fast we can go without undermining the economy or creating goals that don’t have the technology to get there.”

Alberta is better positioned for a changing world, Savage said.

“It is now,” she said. “Four years ago, we were just waking up to it.

“I think Alberta is in good shape.”

Savage, who holds a master’s degree in environmental law, worked at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association before entering politics.

Concerns about family were behind her decision to leave, she says — and a desire to enter the private sector as soon as her mandatory cooling-off period was over.

She said that politics is short term. “It’s not a long-term prospect.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 15, 2023.

Bob Weber, Canadian Press

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