The Honourable Diana McQueen was recently sworn in as the new Minister of Energy on Friday, Dec. 13 as part of Premier Alison Redford’s new cabinet. The Devon Dispatch interviewed McQueen shortly after and asked about her accomplishments achieved as Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), her newly carried Bill 31 (or Protecting Alberta’s Environment Act) and about her future plans as the new Minister of Energy.
What would you say have been your biggest accomplishments serving as Minister of Environment for the past year and seven months?
We did the new wetlands policy this year in both the white and green areas of Alberta; that was a policy that was in the making for a number of years, and we’re very happy we were able to get that policy to move forward.
The regional plans, accomplished the lower Athabasca region and now the south Saskatchewan regional plan is in its final stages as well, so very happy about the work we’ve done on that as well.
Setting up the new independent monitoring agency, a piece of legislation that I carried, Bill 31 (also known as AEMERA- Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency.) It’s very important for us that we have an independent monitoring agency that starts in the oilsands region and then as new regional plans come on, it will move across the province. But it will be independent, and it will have a science advisory board as well and the data that they receive will be transparently reported to anyone willing to look at it in Alberta or Canada or around the world. It will also have, which is very unique, a science advisory board that can peer-review the data. This is the first of its kind and I’m very excited to have been able to lead and champion that as well.
The new Alberta energy regulator that we’ve set up this year is something we’re very proud of as well. It’s been a very busy year for us as we’ve moved through some of those big pieces of work. There’s lots of other work that we’ve done. I was co-chair with the forestry, part of the ministry’s Forest Products Roadmap, so we’ve done a lot of work there to add value here in the province but also to open up other markets in Asia as well.
The last big piece that we’ve worked on as well was the water conversations. We’ve [talked] across the province in 20 different communities about the four main topics as it related to water. We talked about hydraulic fracturing; healthy lakes; drinking and waste water and of course water management. I’m looking forward to the input Albertans gave us across the province to help shape policies as we move forward in the future.
Will AEMERA then work alongside the already established JOSM (Joint Oil Sands Monitoring project) to monitor the environment?
The independent agency will actually do the work that Alberta Environment was doing, and eventually all of the environmental monitoring in the province will go to this agency and they’ll work with our stakeholder partners that do air, water monitoring, but we won’t have it in the ministry anymore.
It will be with this independent agency, so it truly has the credibility and the science advisory board to review it. It is as I say, the first of its kind; it will work with the federal government on JOSM until we take over that work, but in addition to that, because the federal involvement is only in the oilsands region, we will have the science agency work across the province. When the regional plans are completed, they will then come into the agency for the monitoring of the data.
What is the main difference between AEMERA and JOSM?
JOSM is a joint project between the federal government and the provincial government of environment ministries. So the independent agency will actually do all of that work; it won’t be in the ministry anymore… it has come through recommendations from many people on how to set up this agency. It was led by Dr. Howard Tennant of the University of Lethbridge and others who have worked to help set this up.
Some have criticized this bill saying that it isn’t an independent commission since the government appoints the board of directors and the minister determines the frequency of reporting. How can the public have confidence that they will receive in a timely matter access to raw data and information on the environment?
For the board members- it should be out in the next few days- advertising for people interested in sitting on the agency and the group of people that have set this up. The government will do the appointments, but it will be independent. Their work will be provided to the minister at the same time that it’s provided to Albertans. So when the government of Alberta through the ministry of ESRD receives the information, it will also be made publicly at the same time and that gives it the credibility piece.
Why does the minister need to be involved in determining the frequency of reporting?
The ministry will work with the board, but it will be important that if there are things we need reporting on, that we can ask for those as well. The independent agency will work with ministry as it starts up, but the whole point of this is to give the agency the independence they need. Their independence is on the science and data of the releasing of that, but to work with the ministry as well, we’re very confident that the independent piece is there; we’ve set it up for that reason to make sure.
How well do you think the government has been reducing greenhouse emissions to reach their 2020 targets?
We’ve been working very hard with regards to climate change strategy. Federally we’ve been working closely and our new minister will work closely with the federal government as well as they lead that process.
It’s very important for us to meet our targets as we’ve done a good job with regards to reducing intensity per barrel. We’ve reduced about 26 per cent per barrel intensity and as we move forward, we’re committed to reaching and doing our part with regards to climate change as well. We were the first jurisdiction in North America, to legislate a price on carbon and to use the funding for that to a technology fund, because it’s the technology that’s actually going to make the difference to reduce emissions over the longer term.
Fewer than half the companies actually reduce emissions; they pay into the fund because it’s cheaper. Many have said the price for carbon is too low at just $15 a tonne and that the price should be raised to $100 or higher since the cost to build carbon capture into a project is around $200 a tonne. What do you think of that idea?
Well there are many different opinions on that but we also have to look at the economy as well. When Alberta brought in their climate change strategy in 2007, at that time we were looking to North America, certainly the U.S. to have a climate change policy in place, to have a price on carbon- that hasn’t happened yet.
As many of our companies work in North America we have to make sure we look at the environmental concerns, but we also have to look at competition, concerns for our independence.
Nationally, I know our prime minister continues to work with the U.S. as well on a North American strategy and that’s why the federal government is leading this strategy on a climate change policy and they’re moving sector by sector.
Alberta will continue to work on reducing our emissions, but we also want to make sure that we remain competitive so we continue to have a strong economy in the province as well.
Federal figures released last October show that by 2020 Alberta is projected to reach less than 1/3 of its target reductions in greenhouse emissions. What else can the province do to improve?
We’re working on a strategy as well. Our regulations are up for new renewal in September 2014. Energy efficiency and renewables will play a part in our overall reduction. One is the price and the stringency on carbon and the other piece is renewables and energy efficiency. These are things that, as legislation comes up in 2014, that the new minister will work towards.
Since Alberta is projected to reach less than 1/3 of its target reductions, what do you think of the idea for the oilsands to be developed on a smaller scale and a slower pace?
We’re working towards reaching our 2020 targets. Certainly it’s important for us to look at those whether it be energy efficiency renewables, or through climate change policy, but we’re going to continue to develop the oilsands region.
It’s important economically for this province; it’s a big resource for our budgets as well, as we want to make sure we continue to be able to fund health and education and all of the ministries that are important to us.
It’s not an either or; we’ll make sure that as we develop the economy in Alberta, we’ll also make sure the environment protection and issues are happening. There are many different areas as far as land use planning, environmental monitoring, many pieces of the puzzle that goes toward the importance of developing the resources and looking after the environment.
Last month a court ruling stated that government officials had shown bias in the environmental review process. Why did you decide not to appeal the ruling?
We looked at the justice’s decision and we reviewed it very carefully. We made a decision not to appeal it; the people can reapply for standing in that particular case and I thought it was very important that everyone has that opportunity. We took the time to review the justice’s decision and so the Pembina Institute and others will have the opportunity to go back again. I think that’s important, for everyone to put forth their concerns and the process will be for the director to decide whether they reach the conditions of standing. It is very important for all voices to be heard.
What are some of your future plans as Minister of Energy?
I’m very excited about it. We certainly will continue to look at many things we’ve been working on, certainly market access, whether that be into the U.S., with B.C., certainly east coast is very important to us as well and looking into the north. The work that Premier Redford has led with regards to Canadian energy strategy really talks about market access, and how do we [add more value] and how do we make sure that we get our products to market in all of those different areas so that will be a big part of it as well- making sure that we continue to work with other governments across the nation and with the United States to be able to access markets for our resources.
Photo submitted by Melissa Barr. Article published Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 in the Devon Dispatch newspaper.