In 2017 I issued a mid-term report card on the environmental record of Rachel Notley’s government. Their performance on land use planning, parks establishment and climate change was exemplary. On other matters, such as carnivore conservation and land reclamation, they ducked and dodged. Overall, they earned a B+. Such a respectable grade should have helped earn them a second term.
But the Saudis flooded the planet with cheap oil, and our oil patch went bust. Albertans needed somebody to blame, and the UCP pointed their fingers at the NDP. It didn’t help that, flush with success from establishing the popular new Castle parks, Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips moved too fast in trying to create more new parks for the Bighorn area. Off-highway vehicle (OHV) lobbyists, angry at being displaced from the Castle, mobilized against her.
Jason Nixon, the Bighorn area’s UCP candidate, took up their cause. He accused Phillips of failing to adequately consult the people affected by her decisions. In truth, government planning teams during the NDP years did the best and most inclusive public consultation most of us had ever seen.
When people are hurt and angry, however, they’ll believe what they want to hear, and in 2019 we got a new government. So it’s time for a new report card.
I canvassed conservationists around the province. Not one could identify a single positive environmental achievement of the UCP government. Under Nixon and his boss, that other Jason, it’s as if this government has declared war on Alberta’s environment and those of us who care about it.
I canvassed conservationists around the province. Not one could identify a single positive environmental achievement of the UCP government.
Perhaps the single most popular and strategically stupid anti-environment move by our current government was to kill Alberta’s Climate Action Plan and take the federal government to court when it brought in a carbon tax to replace the NDP’s carbon levy. They chose instead to put all our economic eggs back into the oil basket, climate be damned.
When COVID-19 swept into the province, these champions of free enterprise, having long proclaimed that government shouldn’t pick economic winners or losers, were too busy doing just that to pay much attention. They committed $1.5-billion in taxpayer money and another $6-billion in loan guarantees to build a bitumen pipeline through Montana. Then, with most Albertans distracted by the pandemic, they eliminated most environmental monitoring and reporting requirements. The UCP climate plan appears to be to pay producers to churn out as much carbon dioxide and methane as possible, and ensure nobody reports on it.
Or protests about it. This year’s Bill 1 will be struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada eventually, but for now it allows the provincial government to declare any public protest, especially of oil infrastructure, illegal.
After quietly cutting park budgets by almost 25 per cent, the UCP announced the closure of a third of all parks and provincial recreation areas in the province. Responding to widespread public outrage, Nixon promised that no public land would be sold. And then his department promptly sold a large block of native prairie—one of Canada’s most endangered habitats—to a potato farmer.
Nixon did make one effort to consult stakeholders about land use issues. In 2019 he visited southwestern Alberta to hear first-hand the community’s outrage about the new Castle parks and restrictions on motorized use. Much to his chagrin, he learned that most stakeholders were happy. His favoured few in the OHV crowd had misrepresented the community’s concerns. His response? Upon returning to Edmonton Nixon added more OHV representatives to the area’s recreational advisory committee and revised its terms of reference. It has now been tasked with finding ways to open not just the Castle but other nearby protected areas to dirt bikes and quads.
Opening up our last surviving parks and protected areas to more motorized abuse may soon become moot. Having found real consultation disappointing, Nixon chose only to talk with coal industry representatives before surprising First Nations, environmental groups, ranchers and other Albertans with news that the entire Eastern Slopes are now open for coal strip mining. A policy instituted by Peter Lougheed’s government—after public consultation—had prohibited open-pit mines from large swaths of wildlife habitat in our headwaters. It’s now rescinded. Our public lands have been thrown open for another carbon-spewing resource industry.
Perhaps that’s why the UCP are also allowing a 13 per cent increase in logging: We might as well clearcut those trees before digging up the place for coal.
In caring for Alberta’s environment, the new government’s score is a solid F minus. Dunce caps all around.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.