Alberta government’s COP28 delegation the largest, most expensive ever

Alberta’s delegation at the UN climate change conference COP28 was the largest in the province’s recent history, at a cost of more than $160,000.

Premier Danielle Smith and six other staffers, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz and seven other ministry staffers, and one civilian went on the trip.

The civilian, David Moretta, paid for the trip entirely on his own, the premier’s office confirmed.

In matching statements, spokespeople for Smith and Schulz said the purpose of attending COP28 was to promote the province’s emissions reduction technologies, its record of environmental stewardship, as well as the province’s “important role in global energy transformation.”

“Alberta cannot rely on the federal government to promote the province’s leadership, for example, on carbon pricing or our commitment to innovation and technologies to give a few examples,” the statement reads.

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One former government staffer who accompanied another premier to a UN climate change conference suggests the late 2023 trip was to take Alberta’s fight with the federal government to an international stage.

Smith goes to Dubai, Doha

The two-week trip had the premier attend panels and forums at COP28 on topics like carbon markets, carbon pricing, carbon capture and sequestration, and the energy transition.

While in Dubai, Smith met with United Arab Emirates officials and energy companies. Smith also met with François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry, and the man who famously said climate change externalities were the “greatest market failure the world has seen,” Lord Nicholas Stern.

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The premier, her chief of staff Marshall Smith, her office’s executive director Rob Anderson, an assistant, her communications director Rebecca Polak and a man identified in expense documents as the “tour and advance coordinator” went to Qatar to meet with that country’s prime minister and other government officials, the CEO of Qatar Airways, and the president and dean of nursing at the University of Calgary’s Qatar campus in Doha.

“The premier’s delegation met with officials from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha to discuss investment opportunities in the energy, infrastructure, education, and transportation sectors,” Sam Blackett, the premier’s press secretary, said in a statement.

He said the premier promoted the province’s strengths as a “world-class” destination for businesses and investment.

“Major deals or investments can take many months, or years, to secure. We will continue to work on those opportunities as we move forward.”

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Schulz and her ministry did not go to Qatar, according to press secretary Ryan Fournier.

Smith wasn’t the first Alberta premier to attend a UN climate change conference, but her delegation was nearly double the size and more than three times the cost incurred by the last premier to attend: Rachel Notley.

Alberta’s climate plan on the world stage

COP21 was the first time an Alberta premier attended a UN climate change conference, with Notley attending alongside nine others, including then-environment minister Shannon Phillips and members of the premier’s office and the Environment and Parks Ministry.

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Notley was in Paris, France for COP21 between Nov. 28 and Dec. 2, 2015, not for the entire conference, the same UN conference that saw the Paris climate agreement signed.

Phillips and her staff attended from Dec. 5 to 10, 2015, with the exception of Kathleen Rich, listed as “director climate change secretariat” in the expense records, who attended the full 13-day conference.

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Notley and Phillips, and their respective staff, were in Paris at different times.

A post-conference report said the 2015 trip was to promote the province’s climate leadership plan, strengthen relationships within Canada, demonstrate the province’s commitment to action on climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy, and build relationships with stakeholders.

Cheryl Oates, who went to COP21 as Notley’s director of communications, said that the week before the trip to Paris, the Notley government unveiled Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan. Oates characterized it as a “groundbreaking” plan from an energy-producing jurisdiction.

“(We) used that as a springboard to go to COP21 as part of the Canadian delegation and send a message to the world that not only was Alberta continuing to produce oil and gas, but we were doing it as one of the most progressive energy jurisdictions on the world stage,” Oates told Global News.

“We had basically said we have a world-class climate plan for an energy-producing jurisdiction. And then by taking it to COP21, the international community verified that.”

The 2015 report showed Notley’s nine-person delegation incurred travel costs of $36,219.59 in 2015 dollars, which matches Global News calculations. In 2024 dollars, that’s $45,866.59.

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Smith’s 16-person delegation at COP28 was Alberta’s biggest to date. Global News calculations show that delegation ran up a bill of at least $160,000 for taxpayers.

But administrative delays in reporting Schulz’s expenses mean the entire bill for that trip won’t be known until mid-April.

Travel expense records retrieved in mid-March show more than half of the Smith delegation’s costs – 58 per cent – went to hotels, nearly a quarter was spent on airfare, and the balance on things like food, ground travel and per diems.

The Notley government trip had similar proportions: 51 per cent of expenses went to accommodations and 35 per cent to airfare.

Smith and most of her delegation stayed overseas for two full weeks, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 14, 2023. Peter Procee, the tour and advance co-ordinator, went to the Middle Eastern country a week before the rest of the delegation and appears to have booked that flight the day before departing.

Notley’s office stayed at the five-star Radisson Blu Hotel Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, with Phillips and staff staying at the four-star Holiday Inn Paris – Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Hotels for COP21 participants were placed farther outside France’s capital because of the bombings that targeted locations like the Stade de France and the Bataclan Theatre two weeks earlier.

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Smith’s delegation stayed at the Habtoor Grand Resort, a Marriott Autograph beachfront hotel in Dubai. While in Doha, the delegation stayed at the JW Marriott in the Qatari city.

Schulz and staff stayed at the Pullman Hotel Jumeirah Lakes Hotel in Dubai.

Oates said the plummeting oil prices – WTI was sitting at near the US$50 per barrel mark at the time of COP21 – was one of the considerations for a smaller delegation on the trip designed to rejuvenate the province’s reputation on the world stage.

“And then secondly, we basically took the bare bones. We took the premier’s advisors and we took the government’s senior servants that were necessary to the work that we were doing, at a time when Paris had just suffered a horrific terror attack. And so everything was sort of scaled back,” Oates said.

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Blackett said it’s “very typical” for the premier to travel with her office and department staff.

“The length of the trip was decided on to align with COP28 and allow time to travel to Doha for meetings,” he said.

Both Fournier and Blackett said the airfare selections, hotel and meals “fully aligned” with the government’s policy.

Blackett said the hotel selections for Smith and her office were made to “seek balance” between taxpayer value and security, accessibility to conferences and meeting locations.

The current travel, meal and hospitality expense policy states both the person travelling and the person authorized to approve the travel expenses must consider that “taxpayer dollars are to be used prudently and responsibly with a focus on accountability and transparency.” Economy class tickets are usually booked unless a medical condition requires it or “for a demonstrated business reason” and individuals can upgrade their seats using personal funds.

But there is no similar guidance for accommodations, only that they should be “reasonable.”

‘Eye-popping numbers’

Kris Sims, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the COP28 expense numbers were “pretty eye-popping numbers.”

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“We’re totally in favour of the government needing to promote Alberta’s energy sector. We totally understand the need to defend, frankly, oil and gas here in Alberta, but we wonder about the return on investment,” Sims said.

“On the surface of this, this looks like more people going, spending a longer time while spending more money.”

Sims speculated the trip could have been designed as a “charm offensive: let’s bring our A-game, let’s bring our big A-team, let’s bring all of our best data and best industry people, and convince these people how wonderful Alberta energy (and emissions reduction tech) is.”

Oates said going to the UN climate change conference can be a very useful space for Alberta companies to develop relationships and sign deals with international companies and investors in the space.

“Premier Smith went on the heels of a moratorium on renewables, the Sovereignty Act and actively fighting against climate policy from the federal government. And so to go to a climate conference where there are people there looking for a way to invest and engage in decarbonization, it sort of sends an opposing message,” Oates, now a principal with GT and Company Executive Advisors, said.

“And I’m not sure that any amount of taxpayer dollars would have accomplished her goal there, which was just to use it as a giant stage to fight with the federal government on.”

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But University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young said there may have been a much simpler explanation, one Smith telegraphed earlier in her tenure.

“Presumably, a big part of the objective for the government in going, staying so long, taking so many people, was to demonstrate themselves to be essentially members of a club, an oil-producing state just like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia,” Young said.

“If what you’re trying to do is to portray yourself as a member of this very affluent club, then you don’t show up with just a couple of people in tow. You show up with a big delegation because money is no object under those circumstances.

“From that point of view, I don’t know that there were benefits, per se, in terms of Alberta’s financial well-being. But certainly I think that for those Albertans who elected the Smith government in order to have a strong voice for the Alberta oil industry, it would have been gratifying to see the premier and cabinet ministers taking pictures with other leaders of oil-producing jurisdictions.”

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At the conclusion of the climate change conference, Smith and Schulz issued a joint statement saying they were “greatly encouraged … in pushing back against the voices of those obsessed with accelerating the phaseout of sustainable and affordable energy derived from abated oil and natural gas.”

After taking aim at Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, the joint statement said the province plans to continue to “demonstrate to the world how an energy-producing jurisdiction can simultaneously increase renewable and non-renewable energy production while achieving carbon neutrality through investments in new technologies” as part of its net zero by 2050 plan.

“This is the Alberta Way.”

Looking back at other trips to COP

Searching expense records that go back to 2012, an Alberta delegation has attended the UN Conference of the Parties (COP) eight times over the years.

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COP18 in Doha, Qatar had then-environment minister Diana McQueen attend in 2012.

The next year in Warsaw, Poland, McQueen and Rich, who was the director of the climate change secretariat at the time, attended COP19 as part of the Alison Redford Progressive Conservative government.

COP20 in Lima, Peru had then-environment minister Kyle Fawcett, his deputy William Werry and chief of staff Brent Francis in 2014, a Jim Prentice government delegation.

Phillips, her chief of staff and another staff member of the Environment and Parks Ministry attended COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco in 2016.

COP25 in Madrid, Spain saw only one Environment and Parks Ministry member attend shortly after Jason Kenney’s election as premier.

Two years later in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, a five-member Alberta delegation at COP27 was led by then-environment and protected areas minister Sonya Savage just one month after Smith won the UCP leadership in 2022.

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