COVID-19 style conspiracy theories bedevil Alberta oil and gas politics thanks to UCP

Kenney, Savage must not be allowed to hijack national energy conversation with unfounded conspiracy narratives

Canada needs a “just transition” plan. The global energy transition is gathering steam and, inevitably, there will be winners and losers. It is only fair that the losers, like coal communities, not be abandoned. After months of intense pressure from civil society groups, Ottawa says that it will consult with Canadians about a just transition strategy. Unfortunately, Alberta heard “just transition” and immediately accused the Trudeau government (again) of trying to “dismantle” the oil and gas industry. This endless conspiracy-mongering by the UCP is out of step with Canadians, including a majority of Albertans, and impedes a constructive conversation about Canada’s energy future.

Source. Abacus Data poll, January 3, 2020.

The transition from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) to low-emission electricity and biofuels like hydrogen is a fundamental restructuring of the global economy primarily driven by technology change, capital, and markets, and secondarily by governments. Change by its nature is disruptive. Jobs are lost in some sectors, gained in others. Canadians intuitively understand this.

“A lot of the political conversation about an energy transition has involved the suggestion that an energy transition is anti-Alberta, or something happening only in Canada, or a thing that could be stopped by a more pro-oil federal government,” says pollster Bruce Anderson. “But Canadians and most Albertans don’t see it that way – they believe whatever disruption a transition will cause is necessary and inevitable, and they want governments to work together on a plan to adapt our economy, not debate whether we need to or not.”

The governments in Alberta and Ottawa, however, view the energy transition very differently.

Source. Abacus Data poll, January 3, 2020.

The Liberals came to power in 2015 believing both that the global energy system is being transformed by new technologies and that climate change constituted a crisis requiring significant government intervention. “Pipelines and wind turbines” was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign slogan. This middle ground strategy has changed over time as global governments, including Canada, have ramped up climate policy. But decarbonizing oil and gas production while letting market forces determine supply is still Ottawa’s fundamental approach to the national hydrocarbon sector.

There is simply no evidence the Liberals are planning to shut down or phase out Canada’s 5 million barrels per day of oil production. 

If Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s claim that the just transition engagement is proof of the “federal government’s intention to hastily phase out Canada’s world-class oil and gas industry,” why did Ottawa buy a pipeline company (Trans Mountain) for $4.5 billion and then spend another $12.6 billion to complete a 525,000 barrels per day new pipeline (Trans Mountain Expansion) to the West Coast in the face of considerable public opposition from British Columbia?

Source. Abacus Data poll, January 3, 2020.

The UCP clearly sees the world differently. Premier Jason Kenney is the energy status quo’s greatest champion. Until recently, he refused to even acknowledge the energy transition. And who can forget his comment to the Globe and Mail editorial board that climate change is a “flavour of the month”? Alberta has no climate plan because the UCP dismantled the one implemented by its NDP predecessor. He now concedes only that change will be slow and hydrocarbons will be used for a long time.

But rapid change is already affecting Canadian oil and gas. From a high of 229,000 in 2014, direct employment has fallen to 185,000 today; the figures for Alberta are 180,000 and 150,000 respectively. According to Energi Media experts (here, here), another 50,000 could be unemployed as early as mid-decade as the oil patch aggressively pursues efficiencies and lower costs by adopting new digital technologies. 

Source: Abacus Data poll, May, 2021.

Many of those workers are ready to make the switch. A recent public opinion poll commissioned by worker-led group Iron & Earth found that 69 per cent of Canadian fossil fuel workers are interested in switching to clean energy employment, including 64 per cent in Alberta. 

For the Trudeau government, changing job numbers and worker attitudes are more evidence that policy is needed to mitigate the energy transition’s effects.

Source: Abacus Data poll, May, 2021.

Canadians have expressed their expectations that the government will ensure that the low-carbon transition is just and equitable so that equity-deserving groups — such as women, Indigenous Peoples, racialized individuals, people with disabilities and youth — are able to benefit from new jobs and opportunities,” Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a press release.

Characterizing O’Regan’s announcement as Ottawa being “content to hamstring Canadian industry while letting other jurisdictions with lower environmental standards dominate the global market” is a gross distortion of the federal government’s intent. 

A cynic might argue that this is just another example of governments engaging in political theatre, fighting in public while cordially cutting deals behind the scenes. There is evidence for this point of view given that the Kenney UCP regularly beats Prime Minister Justin Trudeau like a political pinata in the media but Alberta still manages to negotiate agreements on industry emissions pricing while sitting on working groups dealing with carbon capture and small modular reactors.

But the cynic would be missing the real harm that Alberta’s intransigent bellicosity does to the Canadian public discourse. In the case of a federal just transition strategy, Alberta is once again sucking the oxygen out of the national energy conversation by stomping its feet and having a toddler-style tantrum. 

Source. Abacus Data poll, January 3, 2020.

Ottawa has to be the adult in the room because in two or three decades, economies will be powered primarily by clean electricity and low-carbon biofuels. Oil and gas will still be used, but in ever shrinking volumes. The economy of the future is electric. 

Witness the escalating competition between the USA, Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea for market share of the burgeoning electric transportation sector. EV cars and trucks, electric buses, battery factories, all the related technologies and supply chains – this is the foundation of the 21st century economy and successful competitors will attract capital, create good-paying jobs, and lay the foundation for ongoing prosperity.

Policy is key to that pivot. Experts, be they academics or corporate executives or environmental groups, have told me over and over during interviews that policy and regulatory frameworks are critical to adapting and thriving during the transition. Successful policy depends upon constructive politics, which in turn depends upon constructive dialogue between the national government and the provinces.

How can Canada have a constructive conversation about the energy transition if the epicentre of the country’s largest export sector continually frames the issue as a conspiracy? 

Canadians have watched in dismay as a small minority of anti-mask, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists delayed the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Premier Jason Kenney and his energy minister must not be allowed to use similar tactics to delay Canada’s energy transition response, including implementing a just transition strategy to help those who need it.


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