Sonya Savage, as energy minister under former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, was tasked with selling a resoundingly unpopular attempt to open the Rocky Mountains to coal mining that wasn’t even her idea.
Later, as environment minister under Kenney’s successor Premier Danielle Smith, she saw her reservations about giving tax breaks to oil companies for cleaning up their wells undermined by her new boss’s enthusiasm for it.
Savage didn’t even want Smith as leader, campaigning instead for former finance minister Travis Toews. She did not run in the recent election.
But don’t look to her for criticism or sour grapes.
“Policy changes,” she shrugs over the phone from British Columbia, where she’s spending much of the summer.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Savage said four years of United Conservative governance left the province well prepared for the green economy of the future. And she gives Kenney, chased out by the party he helped create, much of the credit.
“I was (sorry to see him go),” she said. “There was nobody who worked harder than Jason Kenney in trying to get Alberta to a place where it’s competitive and attracting investment,” she said.
Things didn’t start so well for her. Shortly after being named energy minister, Savage became the face of the government’s ill-fated decision to revoke a 1976 policy protecting the Rocky Mountains from coal mining. Opposition to the move was quick, widespread and furious.
“(The idea) came up through various sources,” is all she would say, although other media have reported that UCP candidates such as Jason Nixon were discussing the possibility with coal miners even before the government was elected.
“It certainly wasn’t my idea. It was clearly a mistake and moved far, far too quickly. It was a long path to get (the policy) back in place.”
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic was roiling the province’s economy, the collapse in oil prices threatening to break its economic back. Savage credits Kenney for looking past the quarantines and mask mandates.
“The premier spoke to each one of us, saying ‘What does recovery look like after the pandemic?'”
That got her looking at “where the world was going and having to catch up on some things that hadn’t been done in a decade.”
Savage says her policies on critical minerals, regulations allowing the development of geothermal power and hydrogen, and further work on carbon capture and storage all stemmed from Kenney’s question.
“There has been no other premier in our history that has accomplished as much as he did,” Savage said.
Savage said she carried Kenney’s look-ahead attitude into the environment ministry, from where she delivered the province’s first climate change strategy in April. That policy is now in the mandate letter of current Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz.
“I’m really, really pleased to see the premier using that policy and still talking the language of net-zero and using that plan to be able to keep Ottawa in its own lane,” Savage said.
But that policy, which proposes a series of studies, commissions and reports with no timelines or interim targets, has been criticized as a plan to make a plan at a time when the rest of the world is starting to take action. Savage makes no apologies.
“It’s about doing the hard work to find viable pathways to get (to net-zero),” she said. “Behind the scenes, they’re working on sector-by-sector technology pathways and costing it out, finding how far and how fast we can go without undermining the economy or creating targets where we don’t have the technology to get there.”
Alberta is increasingly well positioned for a changing world, Savage said.
“It is now,” she said. “Four years ago, we were just waking up to it.
“I think Alberta’s well placed.”
Savage, who has a master’s degree in environmental law, worked for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association before entering politics.
Family concerns were largely behind her decision to leave, she says — that, and a desire to enter the private sector as soon as her mandated cooling-off period is over.
“Politics is short-term,” she said. “It’s not a long-term prospect.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2023.
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