Meet the Minister: Shannon Phillips

Environment Minister

By Evan Osenton

 

AV: Does your government lose some credibility on the environment file due to its strong support for pipelines?

No, because the replacement of a 50-year-old [Kinder Morgan] pipeline with a new one comes within the context of a 100 Mt oil sands emissions cap, the context of carbon pricing, the context of the most far-reaching climate plan on the continent. I’ll even put it up against California. And our plan is realistic. It allows us to evolve over time and ensure we don’t see negative economic effects or displace emissions. Fact is, a lot of oil sands activity is happening today, which supports tens of thousands of jobs. The product is going to markets where it’s getting a significantly lower price. We’re forgoing revenue that can support healthcare, education, social services. There are issues related to safety, moving that much bitumen by rail. And we’re displacing agricultural exports.

AV: Some argue our carbon price is too low and that rebates further reduce incentives to consume less carbon.

Well, BC implemented an economy-wide price with a system of rebates very similar to ours in 2008 and they did see a reduction in fuel usage. Even if you get a cheque in January and in July, you still make still consumer decisions along the way, and when you compound these with other consumer decisions made possible by carbon pricing—that is, about energy efficiency—it has a larger effect at the level of industrial emissions. That further incentivizes. What you don’t want to do is economically disadvantage people. What you’re doing is shifting consumption patterns over time. And it doesn’t take that long. People respond to a price signal.

AV: Do you feel unfairly criticized by environmentalists?

Not really. People are always going to ask you to do more, and that’s the role of civil society—as long as people are realistic in those criticisms and don’t attack me personally. It’s democracy; people should provide analysis and push their government. Having said that, the plan we put forward is often not fully appreciated: how all-encompassing it is, economy-wide carbon pricing, the coal phase-out. We came up with our methane reduction plan, the federal government took that target and then President Obama took that target. Trump tried to undo it, which didn’t work, and then Mexico took on the target. This is how energy policy ought to be made by an energy-producing jurisdiction: lead conversations, don’t follow them in a race to the bottom.

AV: The plan is to reduce methane emissions by 45 per cent by 2025—but no regulations have been released.

Regulations are coming soon. We’ve invested about $50-million in clean tech, to push initiatives into the marketplace. We have an offset protocol; we’re seeing early uptake. Firms are doing retrofits—pneumatic devices or what have you—to reduce emissions. And we’re looking at assisting with measuring, monitoring and reporting, especially for small firms—there’s an economic opportunity in reducing methane emissions. We’ll achieve the 45 per cent target.

AV: Your government acknowledges that woodland caribou are in peril but also wants to protect jobs. How do you negotiate these competing interests?

We have 15 ranges in varying states in terms of actual numbers and health of the herds. We’ve taken the last couple of years to get a better sense of herd health and of realistic restoration opportunities, which have to come with resources behind them. That’s why we’ve asked the federal government for assistance. There’s more science to do. We’re working with industry in terms of roads, other infrastructure sharing, to minimize linear disturbances. It takes leadership to make this happen. But I will say that the caribou recovery is probably the most difficult file I handle.

AV: You created two Castle parks but at the time said a lot of work lay ahead to protect them. Is that complete?

Not at all. More capital investments are coming. Trail planning; upgrading campgrounds and other infrastructure to keep recreational activity in places where it’s environmentally appropriate and phase it out where it’s not.
AV: Is that improving?

Absolutely. We know this from the number of warnings and from what conservation officers are seeing. From social media, even just from people coming up to me. People have gotten the message; they’re seeing conservation officers, fish and wildlife officers, park rangers out on the land. They’re having more interactions. There are specified penalties now. If you’re on public land, doing something you shouldn’t, you don’t get a court appearance anymore, you get a ticket right there. It keeps my conservation officers out of court, wasting time there, and it sends an immediate message. We did enforcement blitzes in hotspots up the Eastern Slopes where we’d had a preponderance of yahoo-ism, and we saw better compliance with—how should I say this—basic standards of civility on our public lands and a reduction in the antisocial behaviour that used to prevail.

Interviewed by Evan Osenton. Evan is the editor of Alberta Views.

Find the full article in the July/August 2018 issue of Alberta Views.

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