Trouble raising capital? Wait until Greta Thunberg gets through with Alberta oil and gas

Alberta’s response to Greta Thunberg’s visit is a symbol of the old guard’s resistance to change

Albertans don’t seem to understand what a seminal moment the Friday climate strike is shaping up to be. Greta Thunberg will take the stage, national and international journalists will hang on her every word, and Alberta will be revealed (again) as a reactionary backwater, out of step with the greatest issues of our time, the energy transition and the climate crisis. One can only imagine what carbon risk-averse investors on Wall St. will think.

Greta Thunberg.

Or, for that matter, Canadians in British Columbia and Quebec, through which Alberta oil and gas leaders would like to build more pipelines. And talk about giving Canadian environment groups an easy target as they crank up fundraising efforts in response to bellicose fulminating from Premier Jason Kenney and clueless industry leaders.

How long can Alberta thumb its nose at the rest of the world before there are serious political and economic consequences? How long before capital begins to wonder if the Canadian oil and gas industry and Alberta politicians are capable of managing an increasingly volatile political and policy environment?

Alberta boosters like to claim that the deteriorating investment climate for Canadian oil and gas is the fault of politicians driven by ideology, witness NDPers Rachel Notley and British Columbia premier John Horgan, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals. Too many new regulations, too many taxes (like carbon pricing), kowtowing to environmental groups that can never be placated and indigenous communities – like West Coast First Nations – that will never buy into oil pipelines.

Let’s flip that argument for a moment.

The world is changing and the evidence is everywhere. Major oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell are actively transitioning away from high-carbon sources of energy. International governments are irrevocably committed to lowering emissions in pursuit of Paris Agreement targets. Probably most importantly, costs for low-carbon technologies like Lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles are falling far faster than experts predicted even a year or two ago.

For the first time in 150 years, petroleum has a competitor.

The global energy system is undergoing major structural change, driven primarily by technology change, markets, capital, and consumers and secondarily by public policy. Like all seismic economic changes, this one is complex, messy, and advancing at different rates in different parts of the world. Europe, China, and progressive American states like California are busy adapting to the new energy reality.

Alberta is not.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Led by Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government, Alberta has chosen to “fight back,” to resist change, to try to bend history and progress to its will.

Alberta’s response to Thunberg’s visit is a perfect example of the province’s new conservative ethos.

The United We Roll group that organized earlier semi-truck convoys in support of oil and gas development is trying to organize a counter-protest to the climate strike. Every two-bit hustler, like George “Kudahtah” Clark, is trying to get in on that action. And the invective on social media directed at the 16-year old Swedish activist is only exceeded by the vitriol reserved for Trudeau.

Rather than roll out the red carpet for the climate celebrity, the Alberta government is churlishly refusing to meet with her.

“I think when you look at some of Miss Thunberg’s comments, she doesn’t understand our province, that she doesn’t understand the reality that to accomplish climate change goals worldwide, we need Alberta as part of that solution,” Environment Minister Jason Nixon told reporters Tuesday.

The worst reaction, though, comes from industry’s top lobbyist, Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“I hope she is here to understand how we produce (energy) and the … solutions that we are bringing forward,” McMillan told Chris Varcoe of the Calgary Herald Tuesday, condescension dripping from his every word. “If I have a concern, it’s that — like Jane Fonda or like Neil Young — she is coming here with an agenda that is predetermined … I hope that unlike them, while she is here, she pauses and does learn about how we produce and leaves with a fuller picture.”

Tim McMillan, CAPP CEO.

The message is clear: if Thunberg is coming to change her mind, she is welcome, but Alberta politicians and industry representatives have no interest in returning the favour.

The arrogance is astonishing.

Imagine you’re an institutional investor or a major investment bank under pressure from investors to mitigate climate risk, which is now considered a material risk that must be monitored and managed by Canadian public companies, including giant oil sands producers like Suncor. Eric Denhoff, former deputy minister for climate change under Notley, described in an Energi Media op-ed how New York money managers were relieved to find out about the Climate Leadership Plan because it gave them a narrative to reassure nervous investors.

There is a lesson here for Alberta if it will listen.

If Thunberg is currently the most prominent symbol of the intensifying global pressure for action on climate change, will those bankers take comfort from Kenney’s and McMillan’s cold shoulder to the high school student? Or, might they cock an eyebrow and look askance at the ham-handed approach to a high-profile issue that European politicians have managed much more adroitly?

Albertans should seriously consider the possibility it’s the latter.

Greta Thunberg has become the international symbol of a rising global political, cultural, and social tide – the commitment to take drastic action against the climate crisis. Alberta’s response to Thunberg’s visit is a symbol of the old guard’s resistance to change and adaptation.

Tread lightly, Alberta, capital is watching.

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