PHOTOS: Kevin Taft, leader of the Opposition Liberal Party in the Alberta Legislature from 2004 to 2008, shortly before his book launch at the University of Alberta last night. Below: Former Edmonton Journal senior editor Sheila Pratt, who shared the stage with Dr. Taft.

It was blasphemy, Alberta style!

Last night at the Edmonton launch of his new book on the parlous state of Alberta, its oil industry and their increasingly problematic future together, former Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said something a serious politician is never supposed to admit in Alberta.

To wit, “The oilsands will need to be phased out over the next couple of decades.”

But then, Dr. Taft isn’t a serious politician any more, or even a politician at all – which gives someone in his shoes the luxury of being able to say what he thinks without having to think about re-election. In other words, it may very well be useful, but it’s a fairly low-risk proposition.

So, asked former Edmonton Journal senior editor Sheila Pratt, acting on behalf of the sponsoring Parkland Institute as Dr. Taft’s conversational straight man at the University of Alberta launch of Oil’s Deep State, what happens if we don’t phase out the Sands?

“We either do that on our terms, or it will be done for us,” Dr. Taft warned.

Which was near the point in their scripted conversation that Ms. Pratt usefully reminded Dr. Taft, PhD, that as leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Alberta Legislature from 2004 to 2008, “you used to think that oilsands and the energy industry were really useful for Alberta.”

He admitted: “We’ve done well from the petroleum industry in this province.” But there’s always a but, even if unspoken. … “Now the world is changing and we need to change with it.”

This will be annoying to the most fervent supporters of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government, of course, which unlike Dr. Taft’s Liberals actually faces the challenge of trying to get re-elected in a province that starts getting antsy the instant a government starts to do anything the oil industry doesn’t like.

One doesn’t need to wonder how the Conservative Opposition would respond. Does anyone remember the howls emitted by Alberta’s conservative politicians when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the same thing in much the same words for essentially the same reasons?

Still, it’s worth listening to Dr. Taft’s suggestion the NDP – just like the Conservatives before them – has fallen too quickly under the spell of the fossil fuel industry.

“I am convinced the New Democrats have been captured almost as much as the other political parties,” Dr. Taft told his audience.

Whether or not he meant to include the Alberta Liberals in that company – when he led them, or since – wasn’t clear. But, as Dr. Taft pointed out, it would be a problem for any political party coming into the job of running a province with a one-note economy and governmental institutions heavily influenced by the industry.

“When the NDP stepped into government, they were surrounded by a captive state already,” he said. “Their closest advisors, the most senior civil servants, the regulators and so on, were all, essentially, allies of the industry.”

He cited the NDP’s swiftly concluded royalty review and the “trashing” by the Notley Government of the Leap Manifesto during the 2016 national NDP convention as evidence – an assessment that may not be entirely fair, given the economic and political situation the NDP then faced.

Still, Dr. Taft differentiated between “a captive state,” as in Alberta, and “a petro state,” as in Saudi Arabia, because at least in Alberta, despite the degree of domination by the industry and its minions, we still have lingering democratic institutions. “The thing about a captive state is there’s a chance we can still set it free. … But it’s going to be a tough fight.”

I counted six times in his formal remarks Dr. Taft made the point Alberta is going to have to manage the decline of the oilsands, or have it thrust upon us.

So what’s that going to look like?

“Well, one change is that demand for our product’s going to start to soften, I believe. Which means that price will stay low. The provincial books will become harder and harder to balance.”

“I do not expect the jobs that are being lost in the industry to be regained … you’ll see more job loss,” he went on. “And that will fuel a political crisis in this province, and I think that crisis is going to land in the lap of the next government.”

Dr. Taft predicted the industry will face lawsuits – with potentially “staggering settlements” like those that have bedevilled the asbestos and tobacco industries – and an ever-rising cost of dealing with abandoned wells.

Alberta once had the opportunity to do things like Norway has, Dr. Taft observed. “We had a chance to head in that direction, but that was rearranged.” So the best hope now, he concluded, “is that the taxpayer doesn’t end up bearing the liability.”

“I do not myself believe there are right-wing solutions to the challenges that Alberta faces, so the next hard-right government, if they do win, is going to have a really tough time.”

The Calgary launch of Oil’s Deep State, How the petroleum industry undermines democracy and stops action on global warming – in Alberta and Ottawa, published by Lorimer, is scheduled to take place on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Room EA-1031, Faculty of Arts, at Mount Royal University. Admission is free.

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  1. On the global warming front, global oil consumption is still going up:

    But shale oil and other changes in North America and Europe mean global prices are heading down:

    Like farmers, it looks like the oil industry has produced itself into poverty. However the people in the Alberta patch I know tell me things have never been busier.

    “The future,” as someone once said “ain’t what it used to be.”

    I’m looking forward to reading Taft’s book.

  2. One observation – yes, I agree retired politicians are braver in making predictions about the future than those currently in office. I suspect Mr. Taft is right, production from the oil sands will eventually come to an end. Now, whether that is in 35 years or 75 years (or somewhere in between) is up for some debate.

    The history of the energy industry is full of so many laughably bad predictions by experts. In the early 1980’s our Federal government was predicting oil would rise to $100/barrel (it fell to around $10 in the mid 80’s) and then there was the more recent peak oil prediction by many of a few years ago, where oil was supposed to keep rising in price instead of falling by about 2/3’s in the last few years.

    I agree with Mr. Taft that Alberta should ensure the costs of site restoration and dealing with abandoned wells is covered so we are not left holding the bag – that makes sense whether the end of oil is imminent or further in the future. We still may have the opportunity make up for past mistakes, particularly if the recent trend of oil prices is more of a warning than a final conclusion, but we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the issue forever.

  3. Phasing out the tarsands ops is just one small part of a much larger discussion we need to be having – but aren’t.
    By 2030 my world, if I exist at all, will likely be confined to a few blocks near my home. By 2050, I’ll be just a memory. If I’m lucky. So it’s a discussion I don’t have much of a stake in.
    If you’re a kid graduating from uni this year, or a parent with kids graduating, by 2030 most of the ‘good’ jobs today will be eliminated for humans by automation. By 2050, large swaths of Earth will be uninhabitable and the rest will be unproductive, unsure and unpredictable.
    No one has a crystal ball to forecast the future with certainty but we do know some things for sure; future facts. There will be more humans in a smaller space. Crowding will be an issue. All biological entities exhibit more aggression and less tolerance as crowding encroaches. It’s almost a constant correlation across species.
    The massive infrastructure build from the mid-20th century in first-world countries, that we rely on today, that we have spent mere pennies on maintaining, even less in Albaturda, that served a culture and economy that doesn’t exist today, will be in even worse disrepair. No one can live in a city, any city, without water, food, electricity and security delivered to them.
    Temperatures throughout the year will be at unimaginable levels, everywhere. And the dissemination and exchange of heat differentials, from the tropics to the poles and back, from atmosphere to the oceans and back, what we call weather, has always been unpredictable. Now you can add scale and magnitude to the mix. We literally won’t know what’s going to hit us.

    So, are we talking about this? No! It’s a blasphemy. The only permissible vocalization, apparently, is from the shrieking right wing nut jobs who are denying that such circumstances could even exist.
    I would think that every thoughtful and caring (at least for their own descendants) person would be very interested in their near future. I also thought that facebook was a fad and that Rachael Notley was against a petro-state.

  4. Re: “right-wing solutions”:
    In one outburst, leadership contestant Jason Kenney threatened to cut off oil and gas exports to B.C. if its government slows the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

    Kenney made this threat even through private companies own the fuel and the pipeline. He said it even though provinces are constitutionally forbidden from passing laws compelling private companies to carry out such a blockade.

    So unless Kenney secretly intends to nationalize pipelines and refineries, it’s hard to understand how his threats aren’t pure gibberish.

    Kenney has also suggested he might hold a referendum to force the federal government to renegotiate equalization. Equalization is a program that transfers money from the federal government to provincial governments that have a lower “fiscal capacity” — that is, where economic conditions such as lower incomes lead to lower provincial government revenues. The goal is to ensure Canadians, regardless of region, have approximately the same access to social programs like education and health care. Crashing equalization would be a huge step toward collapsing public health care.

    There are a couple of problems with Kenney’s suggestion.

    First, equalization is embedded in our Constitution, which says there must be “payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”

    Second, the authority to set the formula for calculating equalization transfers is exclusively within federal jurisdiction. The suggestion that an Alberta premier could force a renegotiation is a nose-stretcher.

    And Kenney has to know better. The current equalization formula was created in 2007 by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in which Kenney was a minister.
    Jason Kenney’s Populist Snake Oil, Tom Parkin |

    1. You are completely correct, Keith, on all counts, but the supporters Kenney is reaching out to have no idea. They think the provincial treasurer writes a cheque to Ottawa, and the media sources they follow only reinforce that idea.

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