Notley ignores energy and loses election again. Time for a new NDP leader

Rachel Notley is not the person to craft or deliver a new energy vision for Alberta. She has proven that repeatedly over past 4 years

How do you hope to be premier of Canada’s energy province in the midst of a seismic transformation of the global energy system that will have profound effects for the Alberta economy and never talk about energy throughout an entire election campaign? And why did Rachel Notley do it again after running a similar campaign in 2019 and being drubbed by Jason Kenney?

Notley has decided to stay on as NDP leader. If she leads the NDP in the 2027 election, she will run the same campaign again, with predictable results. The NDP will never form government in Alberta until the party can convince voters that it understands energy, especially oil and gas. 

That will never happen with Notley at the helm. As I wrote over a year ago in Rachel Notley has no energy game: “Neither Notley nor any of her MLAs can explain how the global energy system is changing, the likely role of hydrocarbons in a transformed 21st century global energy system, or why and how Alberta must pivot to the low-carbon future.”

Albertans are anxious about the province’s economy, which means they are mostly worried about the future of its engine, the oil and gas industry. Danielle Smith and the UCP offered them the soothing narcotic of hydrocarbon-fuelled prosperity that they have become accustomed to over the past 70 years. 

Notley had no rebuttal. 

She demonized a premier who richly deserved horns and a pitchfork. Voters shrugged.

She raised the spectre of a collapsing healthcare system whose workers were planning their escape routes if the UCP won. NDP candidates told us that was the number one issue they heard about on the doorsteps. Who could  question them, given the perilous state of provincial healthcare? Only 44 per cent of those who cast a vote seemed to care.

She promised schools and hospitals and tax credits for children’s fitness and a host of other goodies aimed at families, Calgary suburban moms in particular. Meh, was the response.

The one issue she rarely talked about was energy.

Pollsters told us that economic policy was weighing on voters’ minds. That for many voters, especially those in the battleground Calgary ridings, economic policy was energy policy. Notley and the NDP ignored the warnings.

Every day throughout the campaign the NDP filled my inbox with press releases. Perhaps one or two of them addressed energy issues. 

Starting today, there will be weeks of pundits and pollsters dissecting the NDP campaign. Were there not enough promises of one kind or another? Should they have been even harder on Smith? Was Notley’s underwhelming debate performance the turning point?

But the one issue that none of them will bring up is energy. Not the existential threat to oil and gas that is the energy transition and increasingly stringent climate policies of international governments. Not the economic opportunities that Alberta is missing because the provincial government prefers to blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for Alberta’s problems rather than presenting credible solutions. 

But especially not the UCP’s slavish commitment to the oil and gas status quo that is the default position of the industry’s executive class.

The energy transition will be slow. There will always be plenty of demand for oil, don’t worry. It’s more of an energy diversification than a transition. Alberta is leading the way on reducing emissions. Ethical oil. Most environmentally responsible oil on the planet. We’re fine.

And to the extent that Alberta is not fine, it’s Ottawa’s fault. 

That narrative has a death grip on the Alberta political culture and until the NDP – or any other party, for that matter – can break it, New Democrats will lose elections just like they did last night.

The damnable thing is that Alberta desperately needs some political party to step forward with a new vision for the provincial energy economy. 

The oil and gas sector is a mighty oak with a rotten core. The Alberta Energy Regulator is captured and corrupt. Unfunded environmental liabilities like abandoned wells and oil sands tailings ponds have risen to $300 billion accompanied by signs the industry is preparing to dump as much on the taxpayer as it can. The energy transition is ready to begin destroying oil and gas demand, but Alberta is adapting too slowly. Hydrocarbon extraction is bleeding jobs (approximately 16,000 under the UCP) and companies will cut more as they optimize operations. A couple of strong gusts and the mighty oak is in trouble.

Rachel Notley is not the person to craft or deliver that new vision. She has proven that repeatedly over the past four years.

Until the NDP finds someone who can, they’ll remain in opposition, which is where they find themselves again as the sun rises Tuesday morning. Sometime soon, Notley should take her “walk in the snow” and make way for new blood. She is yesterday’s leader. 

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