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'We are a natural gas province': Smith says Alberta needs power plants, not wind and solar

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Alberta's premier assured a ballroom of rural leaders Wednesday that she does not want to see the province move away from electricity generated from fossil fuels, while complaining about solar panels covering farm land.

"This is a natural gas basin. We are a natural gas province and we will continue to build natural gas power plants because that is what makes sense in Alberta," Danielle Smith said.

"Yes, hydro makes perfect sense in Quebec and B.C. and Manitoba. And Ontario has nuclear and hydro as well. But we have to keep fueling our economy with natural gas power plants."

Smith made the comments at the spring convention of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) that was held in downtown Edmonton. The RMA is made up of 69 counties and municipal districts.

She added that carbon capture and usage will help Alberta meet emissions goals, but didn't mention climate change.

The premier's comments on power came after she was asked about a lack of municipal control in project approval and solar panels covering "prime land" without cleanup bonds in place to make sure companies pay for reclamation.

"I'm supportive of solar and wind projects where they make sense. But I can tell you from conversations with people in my own community that putting solar panels on prime agricultural land does not make sense," Smith responded.

"Especially like the one I drive past in Brooks every day I go down there. It's covered in ice and snow and not generating any power at all."

Jim Wood, mayor of Red Deer County, also asked Smith what Alberta is doing to make sure renewable energy companies clean up projects that one day become defunct.

"The concern is this: Some of these solar may be only viable due to carbon-credit grants and so forth that may not be here forever. The companies may not have enough finances to in fact do the cleanup," Wood said.

"And if they're not viable enough to put a bond up to cover their cleanup, then they're not viable. And I think it needs to be addressed at the start or we're going to have the same problem as the orphan wells. And why would we want to bring that to the province of Alberta?"

Smith said legislation requiring cleanup bonds is an "open question" for her government and one she plans to consult rural leaders on in the future.

The premier has faced widespread criticism lately over a plan to give royalty breaks to oil companies for cleaning up inactive wells, which they're already legally required to.

The province's energy minister last week called the Opposition "anti-oil and gas activists" after an NDP MLA demanded companies pay for the cleanup themselves.

The NDP claims the government's proposed $100 million Liability Management Incentive Program is only the start of a $20 billion giveaway to oil and gas companies.

MLA Marlin Schmidt called the initiative "a scam" in the legislature, drawing a warning from Speaker Nathan Cooper for use of the word.

On Wednesday, Smith acknowledged Alberta first needs to figure out how to get orphan wells reclaimed before requiring renewables companies to do the same, but like wells, believes it will become an issue in the future.

"In the case of wind-turbine farms, as I understand it, when installing them typically is 1,500 truckloads to install them, that means someone has to pay 1,500 truckloads to take them away," she said.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley agreed that there needs to be plans in place to clean up all energy projects, but said the government is going about it in the wrong way.

“Danielle Smith is campaigning on giving billions of taxpayers’ dollars to financially solvent companies that are choosing not to clean up after themselves. She can’t be trusted on this issue," she said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said he wasn't surprised by Smith's comments because being loud cheerleaders of the oil and gas industry is a clear strategy of the UCP government.

"When they talk about renewables, they talk about it not working when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining and so pivoting to waste issues on renewables, that's totally on brand," he said.

Last year, Alberta had an installed capacity, the maximum electrical output under specific conditions, of 67 per cent from natural gas and coal and 31 per cent from solar, wind and hydro, according to Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO).

In 2019, about 89 per cent of Alberta's electricity came from fossil fuels and 10 per cent from renewables, according to the Canada Energy Regulator.

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