Sorry, Premier Notley, you can’t have your own facts
Alberta’s new premier, Rachel Notley (pictured above), has stirred up a bit of controversy over the way she has portrayed Calgary’s environmental record. In remarks made during a televised appearance, Premier Notley compares Alberta to that “embarrassing cousin no one ever wants to talk about.” In subsequent efforts to clarify her remarks, she finally settled on the claim that it’s only Alberta’s environmental performance under previous Progressive Conservative Party premiers that is embarrassing.
As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their opinions. They are not, however, entitled to their own facts. And it’s on the facts that Notley stumbles, because Alberta’s environmental performance, much like any other Canadian province, has been one of continuing environmental improvement. Let’s look at some key indicators of environmental protection, starting with air quality.
This table (below), from Alberta Environment and Parks, shows that Alberta’s air quality that’s considered “good” has fluctuated between 94 per cent and 98 per cent of the time. The definition of “good” is that the level of air pollution poses, “no known harmful effects to soil, water, vegetation, animals, visibility, or human health.” The Alberta government notes that even up at Fort McMurray, the hub of oilsands development, the air quality is considered “Low Risk” 95 per cent of the time.
Alberta’s rivers and lakes are also, generally, in good health. In a Fraser Institute study of water quality across Canada in 2013, former Fraser Institute researcher Joel Wood surveyed data on water quality in Alberta, and concluded that while additional monitoring will be needed as Alberta grows (assuming it returns to growth):
Water quality in Alberta’s major rivers is very good, and was relatively stable between 1996 and 2009. There have been major achievements in reducing nutrient loads and bacteria downstream of major population centers; these improvements are even more impressive considering the rapid population growth of the province.
According to Environment Canada (source of the chart below), as of 2010, protected lands accounted for 12.4 per cent of the province’s land area, a percentage only surpassed by British Columbia.
If Premier Notley’s “embarrassment” is really about Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), well, her embarrassment is misplaced. Alberta was the first province in Canada to put restrictions on GHG emissions from large industrial emitters via its carbon levy. Now, one can (and will) argue over whether or not that’s the optimal way to control GHGs, but those arguments have been around the world for nearly 20 years and will likely continue for many more. The fact is, Alberta adopted a GHG-control regime based on what were commonly defined targets in 2007, namely a focus on reducing the GHG intensity of major industry in Alberta. Notley should know about this regulatory regime that pre-existed her tenure, as one of her first acts as premier was to pledge to double the stringency of the levy.
Premier Notley is free to feel ashamed of anything she wants to. But what she should be ashamed about is distorting Alberta’s excellent history of environmental protection. To be sure, there is always more that can be done, and progress will always have to be balanced with economic growth and opportunity. But Alberta has nothing to hang its head about when it comes to environmental protection.
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