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Varcoe: Environment minister and ‘activist’ sits down with energy leaders

Varcoe: Environment minister and ‘activist’ sits down with energy leaders

Steven Guilbeault was able to meet with top brass from major energy companies for the first time.

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Oh, to be a fly on Fridays meetings between Canada’s most powerful environmentalist activist and the country’s oilpatch.


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No, Im not talking to David Suzuki.

On a cold day, Steven Guilbeault (federal Environment and Climate Change minister) met with leaders from various Alberta businesses, including pipeline companies, power utilities, and petroleum producers.

It was his first opportunity to meet with top brass from companies like TC Energy, Enbridge and Tourmaline Oil.

A separate session was held for the heads of major oilsands producer Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix, Suncor Energy CEO Mark Little, and Canadian Natural Resources president Tim McKay. They represent companies that are working together to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.


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Guilbeault is a former Greenpeace Canada campaign manger and cofounder of Equiterre, the Quebec environmental group. Before entering politics in 2019, Guilbeault was a fierce critic to the oilsands.

He famously scaled CN Tower in order to hang a banner declaring: Canada and Bush: Climate Killers. This banner was placed under the observation deck at the Toronto landmark. He also opposed oil pipelines such as the Trans Mountain expansion or Energy East.

He’s now in charge Canada’s climate strategy.

Steven Guilbeault is taken into custody by police after scaling the CN Tower in 2001 during his time as a Greenpeace activist.
After climbing the CN Tower as a Greenpeace activist in 2001, Steven Guilbeault was taken into custody Photo by Postmedia Archive

Guilbeault stated in an interview Friday that I have shown a willingness to work with people who don’t think the same way as I do throughout my career as an environmentalist.


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I am an activist. I was an activist and still am. But I am now the minister for environment and climate change for all Canadians. I now have responsibilities that are not the same as those I had when I was an environmentalist activist.

These ministerial duties will directly impact the oil and gas industry, which is the largest emitting sector in the Canadian economy.

Guilbeault was hired as a temporary worker in the first month of his employment. He attended the COP26 climate summit where the Trudeau government presented its proposal for a new oil and gas sector emissions cap.

He has begun consultations about it and Canada’s new emission reduction plan. Discussions have been extended to the end March.

Although he understands the concern of industry players about his appointment, the Montreal MP said that he doesn’t have a back-up plan for implementation of the caps.


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At the time, 20-30 year ago, I felt we needed to do things such as scaling the CN Tower to get people’s attention about climate change. He added that he doesn’t believe we should do it now.

Now, we also have the B.C. We have flooding, the heat dome, and hail storms. These are all reminders that we are in the age of climate change, and that we must do something.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the ministers’ arrival has caused suspicion within the Alberta government. This is especially true as key federal policies are moving forward, including the cap, new rules for reducing methane emissions, and a federal credit for carbon capture and utilization and storage (CCUS).

Steven Guilbeault speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow on Nov. 12.
Steven Guilbeault speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Nov. 12. Photo by REUTERS/Phil Noble

Guilbeault’s appointment as portfolio manager was a signal that the Trudeau government was interested in the country’s oil-and-gas sector, stated Hal Kvisle (chair of ARC Resources, and former CEO of TransCanada Corp.


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Kvisle stated Friday that we took it as a direct shot to the eye.

Guilbeault would be a good choice for the environment minister.

Guilbeault is also of concern to the Kenney government. The emissions cap could have an impact on oil production, which is a province’s jurisdiction.

The industry has big plans regarding CCUS, which would capture emissions and store them underground.

Can Canada’s goal of achieving a net zero target by 2050 be met by oil production with carbon capture technology?

If it were carbon-free oil, it could theoretically. Guilbeault answered, “But will the demand be there in a similar way it is now?”


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Pollution has been a problem for me since childhood. I am part of a government which has been very clear about this: We are not going after production, we are going after emissions.

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Participants in Friday’s meeting praised the productive discussion.

It is a great beginning to a relationship that many were worried about, said Adam Legge of the Business Council of Alberta. The proof is in how we work together and the actions.

Is the new minister open for dialogue with the oilpatch?

Guilbeault mentioned that he has a photo of November 2015 in his Ottawa office. This was when Guilbeault was on stage with Rachel Notley, then-premier, and other energy leaders to support Alberta’s climate plan. It included a 100-megatonne cap on emissions for the oilsands.


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Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, at far right, then an environmental consultant, is shown with then-Premier Rachel Notley as she unveiled Albertas climate strategy in November 2015.
Steven Guilbeault, Environment Minister, is shown at right with Rachel Notley, then-Premier of Alberta, as she unveiled Alberta’s climate strategy on November 2015. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Amber Brancken

Guilbeault preferred a lower number. However, Guilbeault stated he was willing and able to support it. This led me to be accused of being a salesman by some of my exenvironmental colleagues.

He also met with Jason Nixon, the Alberta Environment Minister, who has been openly critical about his federal counterparts’ appointment.

Nixon called it polite, but he said he is still concerned about the effects of the federal Climate Plan on Alberta jobs.

Nixon stated in an interview that my biggest concern after the meeting was that the federal minister doesn’t seem to understand how certain policies could affect not only the oil and gas industry but other industries as well.

I will give him the benefit to the doubt. In the next few weeks, we will find out if he really wants compromise.

Chris Varcoe, a Calgary Herald columnist.



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