Oilsands phase-out freak-out explained: Conservatives see the road back to Ottawa going through Edmonton

Posted on January 16, 2017, 12:05 am
11 mins

PHOTOS: G7 leaders including Canada’s then prime minister, Stephen Harper, wander down the garden path in Schloss Elmau, Germany, in June 2015. Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Alberta Federation of Labour leader Gil McGowan, Opposition Leader Brian Jean and would-be Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney.

OTTAWA

“Funny,” Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan observed in a Tweet yesterday: “I don’t remember Kenney or Jean hyperventilating when their boss agreed to decarbonization by 2100.”

NotleyMr. McGowan was referring to the nearly complete meltdown on the right in Alberta after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remark last Friday in Peterborough, Ont., that “we can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out.”

The Tweet included a convenient link to a CBC story about news conference in Schloss Elmau, Germany, on June 8, 2015, at which the plan by the G7 advanced nations to deeply cut carbon emissions by 2050 and “decarbonization” by the end of the century was announced.

Mr. Harper, sounding reasonable enough, argued at the news conference that “the kind of targets we’re talking about will require a transformation in our energy sectors.”

He went on: “We do understand that to achieve … these kinds of milestones over the decades to come will require serious technological transformation. Nobody’s going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights. We’ve simply got to find a way to create lower-carbon emitting sources of energy — and that work is ongoing.”

McGowanAs Mr. McGowan observed, no one among Mr. Harper’s supporters – least of all former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney, who is now campaigning to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, and former Conservative MP Brian Jean, who is now leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Opposition – were freaking out about what their sometime boss had to say.

Indeed, while there was some mild opposition from the federal NDP, then still the Opposition in Ottawa, no one was taking Mr. Harper’s remarks wildly out of context at the time either, although it was thought that, behind the scenes, Mr. Harper had done what he could to water down the statement he was publicly defending.

Listened to in context, Mr. Trudeau’s remarks sound remarkably similar to Mr. Harper’s. “We are a country of resources and we need to get those to market. But in the 21st Century, getting our resources to market needs to be done not just by diktat, but by doing it responsibly, sustainably, and including people in the process. Including consultations, including science, including indigenous communities in the way we move forward.”

JEAN-JPGHe went on, also reasonably: “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy. We can’t shut down the oilsands” – here, he paused momentarily – “tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time.”

So what changed?

Not the Alberta government. It had already changed, the month before.

Back then, though, Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada presumably still expected to be the National Governing Party of Canada, forever and ever, amen. Or, at least, that it had a fighting chance of doing so. Many of the rest of us certainly felt that way at the time, and weren’t particularly happy about it.

Accordingly, they wanted to strike a combination of policy and rhetoric that would appeal to as many Canadian voters as possible: appearing to be environmentally responsible but prepared to responsibly develop Western Canada’s petroleum resources.

KenneyAlas for them, by then the perception they were trying to create – in that and other areas – had worn a little thin, and four months later the voters of Canada decided on significant political change.

As a direct result, the federal Conservative Party is today in a terrible state, and you only have to look at the gong show that constitutes its leadership race to see the truth of that!

Meanwhile, the new prime minister of Canada, Mr. Trudeau, hails from the old Natural Governing Party. And – guess what? – he also wants to strike a combination of policy and rhetoric that will appeal to as many voters as possible: appearing to be environmentally responsible but prepared to responsibly develop Western Canada’s petroleum resources.

Now, Mr. Trudeau may or may not be more serious about the environmental part of this equation than his predecessor – I’m still making up my mind about that, as are a lot of Canadian voters. Not necessarily the ones in Peterborough, however. It’s interesting to note that Mr. Trudeau was defending his approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion to a hostile questioner – one who had just been cheered by town hall participants.

But this time, after Mr. Trudeau’s remark in Peterborough (so similar to that of Mr. Harper less than two years ago), the Alberta right went wild, as did their media echo chamber.

Quote the PM in context? Fuggedaboudit!

How do we explain this? Well, there is the obvious of course. Mr. Harper was an autocratic boss and if you wanted to keep your place in a political party he ran, you needed to keep your toe on the line. And mainstream media in Canada, in particular the Postmedia newspaper chain, supports the Conservatives with open partisanship.

But there is more to it than that. After all, while there may not be much difference between the Grit NGP and the Tory NGP on resource development policy, there are significant differences in other areas, and the people who enthusiastically backed the Conservatives’ worst policies when Mr. Harper was PM are very unhappy about the change of government in Ottawa.

The situation is a little more complicated in Edmonton, where the NDP government that relaxed the Progressive Conservatives in 2015 seems at least to realize that the rest of Canada is a democracy, and there is likely to be more progress on resource shipments with meaningful consultation – viz., “seeking social license” – than without. The evidence to date suggests they are right.

But, given the parlous state of the Conservative party, the Right’s movers and shakers – people like Preston Manning, former Harper strategist Tom Flanagan and Mr. Harper himself – have decided that there can be no Conservative restoration in Canada without a beachhead somewhere, and Alberta is the logical place for it.

Its government has access to big money, after all, or at least it will if the price of a barrel of oil ever returns to three figures. And there’s nothing like lots of money and the shelter of a government if your intention is major mischief.

The Alberta NDP is still inexperienced, and therefore arguably more vulnerable than, say, a Liberal government in Ontario or B.C. The province’s electorate, moreover, remains heavily influenced by conservative thinking, and thus may be more easily turned than elsewhere in Canada.

And like the residents of any company town, the citizens of a province so heavily dependent on one industry should be easier to stampede into doing your bidding. This, pretty obviously, is the strategy behind the heavy handed campaigns against Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP by both PC and Wildrose parties.

Plus, a lot of the people closest to Mr. Harper are from Alberta – or, like Mr. Harper himself, are Ontarians who have made it their congenial ideological home.

In other words, Canada’s conservatives have decided that the road back to Ottawa runs through Edmonton.

To make that happen, Ms. Notley’s social license strategy must be discredited – not so easy after a decade of Tory failure on the pipeline file caused directly by the party brain trust’s reluctance to seek social license from voters and politicians outside Alberta.

Thus we have PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney’s childish foot-stomping on social media and Mr. Jean huffing that if Mr. Trudeau wants to shut down the oilsands “he’ll have to go through me!” Plus, of course, the screeching hysteria of the conservative online rage machine.

That’s what’s different since Mr. Harper said basically the same thing as Mr. Trudeau.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

20 Comments to: Oilsands phase-out freak-out explained: Conservatives see the road back to Ottawa going through Edmonton

  1. student

    January 16th, 2017

    Once again the right gets whipped into a lather. Foaming at the mouth and wild-eyed. A whole lot of noise. Well if it makes them feel better, I suppose. Must feel awful to be so powerless, especially when you have an authoritarian streak! But in opposition or something less than that is where these loonies must be kept.

    Reply
  2. Farmer B

    January 16th, 2017

    I think there is no doubt that Premier Notley and our Prime Minister have worked hand in hand to impose the carbon tax and to propagate the myth of “social license”. Can anyone show me an Aboriginal group, environmental group or political group that was opposed to building pipelines that is now onside with pipeline developement? Greenpeace is still opposed, both the BC and Federal NDP are still opposed, Elizabeth May and the Green Party are still opposed, Gregor Robertson is still opposed, the Mayor of Burnaby, the list goes on and on. The only place “social license” exists is between our Premier and Our Prime Minister!

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 16th, 2017

      Good point! I guess “social license” depends on one’s definition. If, for example we consider all those groups and individuals who oppose pipelines as non-members of Canadian society, then it’s easy to secure social licence.

      So there we have it. Those who agree with pipeline construction are part of society, and those who don’t well…

      Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 16th, 2017

      Your list of unconvinced is, or course, accurate, Farmer B. What is missing from your list, however, is Joe Schmoe, the more moderate members of the population. These people have to be at least moved by a signal from Alberta that we too take climate change seriously.

      Reply
      • Farmer B

        January 16th, 2017

        So I guess there are no “Joe Schmoe’s” that comment on Dave’s blog as I haven’t seen many favourable comments on pipeline developement on here either lol!

        Reply
      • PIGL

        January 17th, 2017

        Yup, there’s deliberate obtuseness here. The social license is obtained through the governments of Canada, Alberta, and British Columbia, which represent their citizens….not every individual in all respects, but in aggregate, more or less. These political actors made the political decision that the concessions offered by the Alberta NDP, and the economic realities of the resource economy, would be persuasive enough to justify 2 of the 3 proposals that were on the table. That’s what social license means in this instance. Ms. Notley’s government was able to obtain it. Harper and the Alberta Tory Dynasty were not able to so in 10 years, despite holding all the cards. The intransigence of the ENGOS in BC, I feel, is regrettable, but that can be traced in large part to the arrogance and pigheadedness of previous Conservative governments. The universal love and unconditional support which Farmer B pretends to think is his due is the same as was demanded by the Alberta Conservatives and Harper’s so-called Canadian Dream of Energy Superpuissance. Most people did not buy it, which is why no pipelines were built. Now, there is a chance.

        Reply
    • David

      January 16th, 2017

      “Social licence” is not a myth. In a democracy you can not shove pipelines down peoples throats. The Conservatives tried to do that and were frustrated at every turn. They probably radicalized the opposition to pipelines in Canada more than anything else.

      In the end reasonable discussion, negotiation and compromise will be the only strategy that works. We are landlocked and whether we like it or not, we can’t deny geography. Pull your head out of the sand! What is Alberta going to do, send an army to invade those other unwilling provinces and force them to do our will?

      This rigid type of thinking by right wingers in Alberta on this issue will accomplish as much as their inability to compromise achieved for us over the last several decades on Senate reform.

      Reply
  3. jerrymacgp

    January 16th, 2017

    Of course the oil sands will eventually be phased out … not by government fiat, but by market forces, as gradual decarbonization of the Canadian and global economy reduces demand for fossil fuels to the point where the high-cost oil sands become too unprofitable to extract. This process will undoubtedly take decades, but it will happen. This is not, however, reason to set one’s hair on fire, the way Messrs Jean, Kenney & McIver are doing.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 16th, 2017

      Agreed. Tar sands will eventually be shuttered. there is no question about that. The only debate is when?

      Only in Alberta would an aspirational statement like that be misinterpreted as heresy. We can’t even hope for a cleaner environment someday in the future?

      Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 16th, 2017

      I agree totally, Jerry. The time frame Stephen Harper gave was the year 2100, almost a century from now. To put that in perspective, when cars first started to make their appearance a little more than a century ago, my understanding is that designers were unsure if the impending car revolution would be powered by battery or steam; gasoline was a distant third in the consideration list. With concerns about global warming and other petroleum based problems, there is surely a technology race on to find a replacement for fossil fuels. If/when that happens your prediction is sure to come to fruition.

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      January 16th, 2017

      The day that the oil sands close due to market forces is the day the right-wing ‘sees the light’ and decides that government intervention in the economy is necessary.

      Reply
    • Val

      January 16th, 2017

      well, so far nothing from alternative sources doesn’t come even close to 30% of efficiency of fossil fuel to power movable carts. and seems still very long way to go.

      Reply
  4. J.E. Molnar

    January 16th, 2017

    It was comical theatre of the absurd reading the bombastic criticism from Postmedia’s political pundits on Trudeau’s comment, most notably Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun and Lorne Gunter of the Edmonton Sun. Even the respectable Graham Thomson of the Edmonton Journal entered the “trash Trudeau” fray — all without even the slightest mention of Stephen Harper’s official pronouncement of 2015 to transition the oil sands to renewal energy sources by 2050.

    The conservative journalists at Postmedia have become an embarrassment to their respective papers. Tendentious reporting is one thing, but to be oblivious to well-entrenched, documented facts is frankly, reprehensible journalism.

    The failing Postmedia soon will be hit with massive layoffs, according to recent media reports (ironically in Postmedia). Could Postmedia readers be so lucky as to rid themselves of those biased journalists who obviously lack ethics, integrity and professionalism? One can only hope.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 16th, 2017

      I agree, J. E., especially with regards to the Suns. If Rachel Notley discovered a cure for cancer the Sun headline would be “Rachel Notley causes thousands of doctors to lose their job”

      Reply
  5. pogo

    January 16th, 2017

    As a fairly long time reader and disturber of this blog I thought I’d offer what I think is an interesting view from someone who really knows what it’s like to operate in the power circles of the “right” and “left” in our post modern world. It’s long but well worth it in my opinion for what is said about positional posturing versus pragmatism. Plus, I get to demonstrate to David that I can craft a post without telling Jason Kenney to __________ himself! https://youtu.be/8DP_v8f8ihs

    Reply
    • pogo

      January 16th, 2017

      That’s not by any stretch an hair on fire link. In the end Chomsky (not unlike my link) Is quite positive. The key is, no more BS artists in political positions of power. Sorry, David. Jason Kenney is full of borrowed and reverse mortaged ____ and he can go _____ himself!

      Reply
  6. tom in ontario

    January 16th, 2017

    “In other words, Canada’s Conservatives have decided that the road back to Ottawa runs through Edmonton.”

    Well, David, you can tell your Conservative neighbours in Edmonton that won’t be the case. Stephen Harper secured his majority and minority governments in Ontario, not Alberta. Trudeau likewise cleaned up in 2015. After the 2011 re-distribtuion of seats in Parliament, Ontario’s total is 95, Alberta’s 21.

    Reply
  7. David

    January 18th, 2017

    Well they have to win government somewhere in one of the bigger provinces if they want to be more relevant, but unfortunately for them Ontario has the frequent tendency to vote a different way federally than provincially, so the last thing the federal Conservatives might want is for the PC’s to win provincially in Ontario.

    The number of Alberta seats has increased since 2011 so those numbers are no longer correct, but perhaps more importantly if they can’t win in Edmonton, I doubt they will be able to do well in most of Ontario either. Also, they have for years used Alberta as a major fundraising base and channeled some of those resources to places like suburban Ontario where the races are more competitive.

    Reply

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