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Questionable timing on renewable energy projects moratorium

Labour groups, the Opposition NDP cry foul about the UCP government moratorium on renewable energy projects.
Proponents of renewable energy projects in Alberta want answers from the UCP government. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

Let’s face it, there are some perfectly sound reasons for taking a second look at the rules around development of renewable energy projects in Alberta, as the province’s governing United Conservative Party has chosen to do.

While many of us city dwellers may not like to think so, some of the huge wind turbine and solar projects springing up in rural areas are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing and may indeed end up using some prime agricultural land, as rural critics suggest.

Anyone who has driven past one of these monster projects--whether it’s in rural Alberta or overseas--may feel at least a little sympathy for critics’ concerns about allowing unfiltered growth of the renewable industry.

And sure, it’s politically correct--amid legitimate concerns over the impact of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions--to support greener energy alternatives. And I would argue even at their worst solar and wind projects tend not to be as ugly as the oilsands or the eyesore of Refinery Row just east of Edmonton.

But let’s not forget these bigger projects aren’t being built out of the goodness of someone’s heart. They are developed to make money, the same as any gas or oil sands project or petrochemical plant.

Opposition to wind and solar projects isn’t just developing in Alberta. There is growing resistance to them in the United States as well, with some environmentalist groups fighting them.

Like in Canada, U.S. polls show there is general support for renewable energy. But projects run into the old NIMBY arguments (not in my backyard), as locals worry about the impact on their way of life, particularly if the sites picked are viewed as valuable conservation or recreation areas.

Fierce opposition has erupted to plans to construct a so-called “wind port” of turbines on Sears Island, off the coast of Maine. The island is largely undeveloped, but critics say they want the project built elsewhere, even if they have to sue to stop it.

Lawsuits have been launched against some U.S. renewable projects, while laws have been passed to halt or slow others, in California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, to name a few.

Of course, Republicans committed to the continued growth of the oil and gas industries are fueling some of the opposition to renewables, in situations not dissimilar to the largely rural-backed UCP in Alberta.

As a result, there was much cynicism surrounding the early August surprise announcement by the UCP to slap a seven-month moratorium and inquiry on approvals for renewable energy projects.

Alberta has been enjoying a boom in wind and solar projects, making the province the leader in new renewable energy generation in Canada last year. For some, it was a welcome salve to the wounds of looming energy transition.

While the moratorium drew an outcry, including from some industry players, Premier Danielle Smith defended it, employing some jiggery pokery about how we all should have seen it coming.  Smith brushed off concerns about creating unnecessary uncertainty in a thriving industry, and putting $33 billion in investment and 24,000 jobs at stake if investors choose to go elsewhere, a claim made by the Pembina Institute.

Smith argued a pause and an inquiry into industry procedures is needed to answer questions around land use, wildlife protection, reclamation following closure of projects, and reliability of renewable energy in the electricity grid system.

“This month political actors are making a kerfuffle of this inquiry and the related pause,” Smith said in a letter to Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, adding: “I expect that the inquiry may actually speed up future regulatory processes.”

Still, would the government have taken such a drastic step with the oil and gas industry? And while a review is justified, why a moratorium now, when the UCP knew for years, renewables are coming on?

It smacks of pure politics, a bone thrown to the UCP base.

Ashley Geddes monitors politics for Alberta Prime Times. Over more than 45 years in journalism, he spent much of the time covering municipal, provincial and federal politics, most of it in Alberta.