You may be surprised what Albertans REALLY think about the energy transition. Interview with Prof. Melanee Thomas

“Economic conservatives” and those with “future hope in oil and gas” most opposed to energy transition in Alberta

Alberta is the epicentre of the Canadian crude oil, natural gas, and pipeline industry. Not surprisingly, like many hydrocarbon-producing regions – think Texas or Oklahoma – it is politically conservative. In a 2019 survey, Professor Melanee Thomas found that while support for climate and energy transition policies is lower in Alberta than in British Columbia, Ontario, or Quebec, it still quite high. Higher than one might expect given the rhetoric of Alberta political elites, she says.

Energi Media journalist and publisher Markham Hislop interviewed Professor Thomas about her survey and her plans for a follow-up public opinion poll in 2020 to further refine her investigation of Alberta’s attitudes toward the global energy transition. Readers will find links to Energi Media articles and other helpful information below:

Alberta rejects international consensus on energy, climate at its peril

New aggressive energy narrative may hurt, not help, Alberta with global investors

Voodoo politics on full display at ‘Value of Alberta’ conference

Opinion: Shifting oil demand effects call for cooperation, not polarization

Alberta oil sands advisory group illustrates new political consensus on energy, climate

New poll shows Canadians’ view of climate change determined by age and politics, not science

Social license works: a rebuttal of Jason Kenney

This interview was lightly edited for grammar and clarity:

Markham: Today we’re going to talk about the energy transition in Alberta. As regular readers will know, over the last four or five years this has been a favourite topic of mine, but now we have some data to go to accompany the trenchant observations over in my columns. I’d like to welcome Professor Melanee Thomas from the University of Calgary. Welcome to the interview, Melanee. You did a survey of Albertans’ attitudes towards the energy transition. Why don’t you give us an overview of the study?

Prof. Thomas: One of our main motivations for this particular project is to broadly see where the opportunities and barriers for energy transition exists. And the first step is looking at public opinion. One of the things that come through really clearly if you look at the research around this is that in many, if not most countries, rapid progress towards a low carbon economy seems technically feasible, but politically impossible. If your viewers or readers would think back to the federal election campaign, one of the things that came through really clearly was this idea from the political elites in Alberta that transitioning away from oil and gas – or being anything other than a very enthusiastic cheerleader, specifically for bitumen extraction – means that you were anti-Alberta.

Watch Markham’s full video interview with Prof. Thomas below:

This was an accusation that was levelled, I think quite effectively, against the Trudeau Liberals during the campaign. But it’s also something that we’ve seen pretty consistently from Jason Kenney before his own election. One of our big questions is how many Albertans actually see transitioning away from fossil fuels as an existential threat to the province. And our starting point was looking at something that was done by climate NGOs (non-government organizations). This is idea of the Alberta Narratives Project. We were comparing this project to academic research. So a lot of the academic research about public opinion and relating to climate, it will look at things like climate beliefs and what makes people more or less likely to believe that anthropogenic climate change is a thing. They’ll look at public attitudes about government intervention with particular climate policies like carbon taxation or subsidies for renewables, things along those lines. 

But there are very few academic studies that actually look specifically at asking people about the energy transition. And one of the assumptions is that Albertans see the word transition as an existential threat. This is where the Alberta narratives project is interesting because they clearly identified that some folks really do not like the word transition at all, but most people were pretty neutral about it. They saw the idea that transition needed to be a gradual thing in the place that produces a lot of oil and gas. This isn’t surprising, but one of the things that I found striking reading it myself was this idea that many people weren’t threatened by the idea of transition, at least in the discussion group context because they didn’t really see it as a change or a threat to the status quo. 

So, transitioning to renewables is seen as a different thing than transitioning away from fossil fuels, specifically transitioning away from oil and gas. The idea was that renewables are nice to have, but the fundamentals of our economy aren’t going to change.

Markham: Abacus data is an Ottawa-based polling company that has done a lot of climate and oil and gas and pipeline polling over the last four or five years. And I thought that the data that you came out of your study was remarkably consistent with what Abacus has found. If I can summarize all of that, what it comes down to is that younger voters are more supportive of climate change mitigation and the energy transition, while older voters are less supportive, and then conservative voters are much, much less supportive than say, Liberal and NDP, Alberta Party kind of voters. Is that a fair observation?

Prof. Thomas: Sort of. I would say that I’m a big fan of Abacus Data Dave Coletto is a university of Calgary Ph.D., so we’ve got strong institutional connections there. I would draw slightly different conclusions from that and the conclusions that I would draw would be that we see that things like age and other sociodemographic factors like say gender, uh, which consistently comes up in a lot of other research, they don’t have very large effects. What has the bigger effect is people who identify as economic conservatives. People who believe that oil and gas will remain Alberta’s most important industry and people who are genuinely worried about climate change. So the conclusion that I would draw is that what forcefully structures how people think about the energy transition are pre-existing values and beliefs about the political system in general or about the market in general as opposed to more political kinds of variables.

This is not to say that being on the left or on the right of the political spectrum doesn’t matter. It does. Or being a UCP supporter versus a new Democrat supporter provincially, like these things matter, too. But the magnitude of the effect, at least in our data is that they’re much smaller compared to some of the attitudinal stuff. 

As for the data, we have a big robust sample, which is good, but our sample is from Albertans who took the Vote Compass. And so this means that there are a few things that make the sample less representative than Albertans as a whole. Our sample is more middle-aged, so we’re way more likely to have people who are between 25 and 65 but we’ve got fewer people who are younger and a lot fewer people who are older. Our sample is much more likely to be university-educated than the Alberta population. But beyond that, we still have like 26% of our sample reports that they work in oil and gas. This is a group that isn’t supportive of the energy transition. That transition absolutely is not going to happen, right? Uh, yeah. For people who are wondering, we looked at the whole battery of socio-demographics. If people had experiences with natural disasters, political attitudes, we have good measures of WEXIT (Western Canadian separation movement) and good metrics of climate attitudes. 

Markham: Getting back to the Abacus Data, they’ve shown that even in Alberta there’s a fair amount of support for a long-term transition away from oil and gas. It’s not 100% by any stretch, but there’s more than you would think. 

Prof. Thomas: Our survey broadly supports the idea that a supermajority of Albertans supports the energy transition. Some people might be surprised by this, especially because it is really easy to assume, especially based on elite rhetoric, that Albertans want to double and triple down in oil and gas, or they aren’t interested in things like renewable energy. So, we ask questions like, “Should Alberta move towards renewable sources of energy?” And we asked participants to strongly agree or strongly disagree with these kinds of statements. 

Eighty-seven per cent of our sample agrees that Alberta should move towards renewable sources of energy. I can’t find many factors beyond being really worried about climate change that makes people more enthusiastic about renewables. And one of the things that are interesting is that when you look at, say, the market for renewables, there is evidence to suggest that hearing about how good renewables are for making money makes people even more supportive of them.

One of the other things that come through in our data though is that public opinion isn’t consistent. And I think this is another thing that people assume that everybody will have consistent beliefs and give consistent answers to these questions. As somebody who studies political behaviour and public opinion, I would say always expect some inconsistency. 

So, 59% of Albertans and our data agree that we should move away from oil and gas. We specifically said we should move away from oil and gas, but 49% agree that we should expand our oil and gas industry. You can see that we’ve got some people saying, “yes, we should move away from oil and gas, but we should also expand our oil and gas industry,” which is completely inconsistent.

Overall, I would say that we have supermajority support in Alberta for an energy transition towards renewables. Again, this will seem perplexing to some folks. 

The hypothesis that we have coming from these data that we want to test further in new studies is to assess how much of this is due to a complete lack of emotional investment with things like coal; Albertans don’t see their people’s identity tied to electricity generation and coal, for example. When we asked about where people wanted their electricity generated from, people are enthusiastic about renewables, like solar and wind. They really don’t want coal by 2050. Only 4% wanted their electricity generated from coal compared to the 49% that it is now. And they had that 49% figure in the question, so they knew what the benchmark was. 

So, I would say Albertans are interested in that kind of renewable energy transition with respect to electricity, but we also think that we didn’t really capture the kind of emotional investment in oil and gas. It’s kind of like this Alberta mythology. One of the things that we’re going to test is to see whether or not some of that inconsistency comes from different ways of thinking about particular parts of the energy sector.

Markham: What about how Albertans talk about the energy transition? This is particularly germane because the Value of Alberta Conference was recently held in Calgary, which was basically an oil and gas pipeline love fest. 

Prof. Thomas: Because it was an online survey, we don’t have a lot of conversation coming back and forth, but we did leave an open-ended comments section on the survey. We always end our surveys like this so people have ideas or insights that they would like to share, or if they particularly liked or disliked some of the questions that we asked. And one of the things that’s interesting going through these comments, it’s a kind of people when they feel really strongly, they will let you know about things. 

Some folks found that even asking about this stuff in this way to be “traitorous.” These were certainly voices that were in the minority in our data. I think that they are in the minority in the population in general, but they are very loud. Some of the comments were downright vicious, which is fine, it’s people’s prerogative to tell us. We do invite what they actually think. But when I see conferences like this what I see is an elite apparatus that’s supporting a very loud, very angry, but very small minority. So, one of the things I’m seeing in these data is that there are a lot of people who are thinking very differently and they are certainly quieter, which means that they are underrepresented in terms of like the actual proportion of folks that actually think that way.

Markham: So one of the things that struck me as a reporter who covers the energy transition and does so both nationally and internationally is the extent that over the last 12 to 18 months, I would say the energy transition has entered the popular lexicon. Everybody’s talking about it now. Whether it’s the Blackrock’s $7 trillion asset management fund or it’s the International Energy Agency, everybody acknowledges that we’re in an energy transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon technologies except Alberta. And this reminds me very much of the conversation one might have in say, West Texas, around the Permian basin, around the Midland Odessa area. It’s culturally very similar in some ways to Alberta, but really out of step it seems to me with other parts of the world and even the national conversation. Is that a fair comment?

Prof. Thomas: I think so. The most interesting finding from a results perspective, and then also the most alarming finding from a “what does this all mean perspective” is the really strong effects that we see when people self identify as economic conservatives. To identify somebody as an economic conservative, we ask four questions. One is that everybody benefits when business makes a lot of money. Another is that the government should leave [business] entirely up to the private sector to create jobs. Another is the idea that government has a responsibility in redistributing income. And the last is the idea that the environment should take precedence over the economy. These are agree and disagree questions and people who are paying attention will know that for two of those questions if you agree with them, that’s consistent with being an economic or market conservative and with two of them, if you disagree, that’s consistent with being an economic or market conservative.

We make sure that everything is presented in the correct direction and then see how this affects those questions about the transition that we were asking. It is consistently our strongest negative predictor. Market conservatives are the most opposed to the idea of the energy transition in Alberta. And what’s interesting is that when we were looking at this, I remember thinking what’s going on? I’ll go to international conferences and they will include with the academic researchers, they’ll bring in hedge funds and investment bankers, a whole boatload of them that talk about how they’re going to be a carbon-neutral by 2050. I see a lot of economic pressure internationally that says get the show on the road with the energy transition because your ability to make money will be compromised coming out of this.

On some level, we believe that economic conservatives are entrepreneurial and part of that means is that they just want to make a lot of money. And so from that perspective, I find the results that we’re getting from Alberta really weird. 

One of the things that we did is ask, “What happens if I take that question about the environment being more important than the economy out of my measure of economic conservatism?” So, it’s just about everybody benefiting what business does well, it’s just about private enterprise should be creating jobs, not government, and that the government should stay out of income redistribution. It’s still my most important negative predictor of opposition to transition. 

One of the things that we need to do in the next steps of our study is to refine this measure because of course my first question is whether or not I’m actually getting at economic conservatism.

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