‘Stranded Nation,’ a review: Alberta’s petro-patriotism becomes a movie

Heidi McKillop.

If industry and its Alberta supporters would only realize it, the battle has largely been won

Stranded Nation feels like CAPP press releases turned into a movie, a 70-minute long “documentary” that regurgitates oil and gas industry talking points while trotting out the usual suspects to do the talking. Will the message sell outside Alberta? Not likely.

Ask yourself if Canadians in Vancouver or Toronto or Montreal will watch a film whose central message is “oil and gas are fantastic, stop hating us and give us pipelines.” Boosters think they will, which is why Calgary restaurant server Heidi McKillop’s love letter to the industry is being so warmly embraced in Alberta, where jingoistic “petro-patriotism,” as Jason Markusoff of Macleans described it in a recent article, now rules.

Canada, to me, is the most principled and transparent country in the world. We often see our neighbours to the south create songs and create movies on US patriotism. However, it seems as Canadians that we get wrapped up in what other countries are doing and we forget to look within our own borders for security and strength. We are blessed to have a strong natural resource sector. And as Canadians, we should not be ashamed of supporting one of the most important industries in Canada.

Who says Canadians are ashamed of the oil and gas sector? This is a common view in Alberta, but it’s not supported by the data

For instance, recent public opinion polls show that around 60 per cent of British Columbians support the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion. Is there strong opposition in Vancouver and Burnaby? Are local First Nations trying to tie up the project with litigation? Sure, because these are the people who stand to be directly affected if a catastrophic spill happens. Vancouver is also the epicentre of the Canadian environmental movement and the groups opposed to the oil sands.

But in a country where 38 per cent of the popular vote elects majority governments, complaining because only six in ten Canadians agree with you seems downright ungrateful. It’s also self-defeating.

Frank McKenna.

Stranded Nation, like the industry generally, is fixated with the minority opposition instead of the majority support. “We had a carbon tax, so  why don’t you love us, David Suzuki?” is the Alberta oilman’s newest lament.

“What we’re doing here in Canada, we’re basically shutting down the voices of the resource industries, which aren’t very loud to start with, and listening to the voices of activists who say, we want more process, we want more regulation,” former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna says during his interview.

By any objective measure, the Canadian oil and gas industry has a pretty big megaphone. The annual budget of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers alone is tens of millions and there are dozens of other associations and groups promoting the pro-hydrocarbon message.

Low volume is not the industry’s problem.

Another fundamental flaw in Stranded Nation is the fact that the oil sands have a curiously minor role. Indeed, they don’t even have any lines.

Where are the oil sands CEOs, like Mark Little of Suncor or Alex Pourbaix of Cenovus, executives who support climate policies like carbon pricing? These are the visionaries, the executives who are decarbonizing bitumen as part of a strategic move to open new Asian markets, the companies that are investing hundreds of millions into lowering greenhouse gas emissions with new technologies.

The oil sands produce around 80 per cent of Alberta’s crude, and that percentage will be 90 per cent by 2030 as bitumen output grows by one million barrels per day (b/d) but conventional production stagnates. This is why I made the oil sands the focus of my book, The New Alberta Advantage. The oil sands are Alberta’s future. 

McKillop doesn’t completely ignore the oil sands, but she treats it as a prop to illustrate how those nasty celebrity activists like Jane Fonda – who jet into Fort McMurray on petroleum-fueled planes! – are so mean to Alberta. This is deeply ironic, given that it’s those same celebrities that have used the oil sands as their go-to prop for years now. 

Cody Battershill.

Instead of industry heavy hitters, McKillop trots out boosters like local realtor Cody Battershill, “foreign-funded activists” conspiracy theorist Vivian Krause, and Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel to gush about oil exports and pipelines. A few industry veterans – Randy Ollenberger of BMO Capital and Modern Resources CEO Chris Slubicki – mouth similar platitudes, demonstrating the extent to which petro-patriotism has infected industry culture.

“It’s hard to imagine a life without fossil fuels. So much of what we do, not only in our cars and heating our homes, relies on fossil fuels,” Slubicki tells the camera. “It’s our clothes, it’s plastics, it’s medicines. It’s impossible to imagine our life today without fossil fuels. Impossible.”

Today? Sure. But it’s not nearly as hard to imagine our lives in the future without them. And it’s not just eco-dreamers that are doing that, either.  Here’s Kurt Barrow, a former ExxonMobil executive and now an energy analyst for IHS Markit, nicely summing up the source of Alberta’s existential angst. “Global energy markets are embarking on a transition to lower-carbon sources. The pace of this change is uncertain, but the direction is set and undeniable.” 

Petro-patriotism is the voice of those fighting a rearguard battle against that change, and Stranded Nation is its call to arms. Unfortunately for McKillop and her fellow travellers, Canadians are way out in front of her on this issue. Opinion polls show Canadians have a sophisticated view of the energy transition, and as long as their governments support policies to hasten the pivot to low-carbon energy they’ll also support further oil and gas development, including new pipelines.

If industry and its Alberta supporters would only realize it, the battle has largely been won. Dangers, however, remain. 

Polling data also shows that while Canadians are not persuaded by hardline arguments for or against hydrocarbons, significant support for oil and gas has slipped since 2013 from support to neutral. If I was the CEO of an industry trade group, this is the trend that would keep me up at night worrying.

What I’d worry about is petro-patriots like McKillop and her merry band of boosters in Stranded Nation alienating moderate Canadians outside conservative strongholds like Alberta and Saskatchewan, perhaps speeding up the slippage into neutrality; or, worst case, a wholesale march into outright opposition. 

Beware the law of unintended consequences.

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