Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel got a couple of things right about Jason Kenney’s plan to establish a “war room” in the Ministry of Energy to pump out belligerent propaganda attacking environmentalists, other governments and private citizens who fail to support of Alberta’s wishes for endless oilsands expansion with sufficient enthusiasm.

The United Conservative Party’s notion of opening a Ministry of Truth is indeed juvenile, as Mr. Mandel proclaimed on New Year’s Eve. It also fundamentally misinterprets the way major oil companies are likely to want to position the industry in the difficult years Alberta faces in the future.

United Conservative Party Opposition Leader Jason Kenney in a typical pose (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Accordingly, it is unlikely to achieve its presumed goal of making outsiders more sympathetic to Alberta’s economic needs, or even to be particularly effective bullying them to do what we want.

That said, Mr. Mandel’s Big Idea that so entranced the Calgary Herald isn’t much different. The Alberta Party leader proposes a kinder, gentler version of Mr. Kenney’s “Minitrue” to woo a little more and bully a little less.

That’s better, I guess, but it’s not likely to be much more effective for a number of reasons, above all the increasingly hard-to-deny reality of global climate change.

There’s also Alberta’s loudly proclaimed self-image as the victim of Confederation while benefitting more from the country’s constitutional set-up than any other province except perhaps Quebec – about which we complain bitterly and unremittingly. Surely other Canadians are growing impatient with this permanent pity party.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, a New Democrat (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

What’s more, the prime minister has certainly contributed to Alberta’s problems – but not necessarily the PM that holds office right now. Alberta’s problems were being made worse before Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals came to power in the fall of 2015, or for that matter before Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP won a majority in the spring of that year.

As Chris Sorenson wrote in Maclean’s Magazine back in January 2015, then-PM Stephen Harper was Big Oil’s worst enemy thanks to “his relentless oil and gas boosterism.”

“It’s not like Harper needed to transform Canada into a granola-crunching utopia to keep the oil sands out of the international spotlight,” Mr. Sorenson observed. “He just needed to do something.”

Quoting David Anderson, federal environment minister under prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, the article describes how Mr. Harper allowed oilsands development “to become a poster child for climate change” just as the Obama Administration and much of the rest of the world were starting to get worried about the state of the planet.

Moreover, Alberta also can’t be sure the process required to squeeze bitumen out of the province’s oilsands will never matter to end users, Mr. Anderson observed. “We can’t assume that oil is going to be a fungible commodity on the world market as it has in the past. There will be clean oil and dirty oil.”

Former federal environment minister David Anderson (Photo: Order of British Columbia).

Instead of emulating Norway and calling for a carbon tax that would have made it easy for a worried world to love Canadian oil, Mr. Harper bragged we were an oil superpower that could do whatever it wanted, telling a reluctant President Barack Obama he wouldn’t take no for an answer on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Everything seemed to change later in 2015, with the election of Liberals in Ottawa and New Democrats in Edmonton. Then everything seemed to change again in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, cheered by Canadian Conservatives, in the States.

But the fundamentals of the international market for oil and the realities that impact it haven’t really changed much at all. And Mr. Trump will soon be gone from the White House, quite possibly very soon. Which brings us back to Alberta’s propaganda plans.

Despite a modest difference in tone, there’s not much light at all between the supposedly more moderate Alberta Party headed by Mr. Mandel and the unblushingly immoderate UCP headed by Mr. Kenney when it comes to the plan for a propaganda ministry.

And there’s precious little light between either conservative party and Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP, which is already taking a similar approach without bothering to set up an additional layer of bureaucracy – which is, it could be argued, a moderately more conservative approach than that of the other two if you happen to be one of those who disparage Big Government.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper (Photo: Remy Steinegger, Creative Commons).

As has been said in this space before, surely the only thing standing between Ms. Notley’s NDP and an easy re-election victory in Alberta is the name of her party.

The seeds of foreign and domestic distrust for Alberta’s claims it operates the world’s most ethical and environmentally friendly oil industry were sown by Mr. Harper, ably assisted by Mr. Kenney, then his lieutenant in Ottawa.

Screaming at people who believe there must be a cap on oilsands production is unlikely to do anything but reinforce their belief. Threatening them will make it worse. A slick pitch like that proposed by Mr. Mandel may be better, but not all that much.

Going slow on promised environmental measures – as suggested by Premier Notley’s withdrawal of support for Mr. Trudeau’s climate plan because the Trans Mountain Pipeline isn’t being expanded fast enough – won’t help much either.

Even The Economist, the international magazine for people who wish they were rich, argues Alberta’s intransigence is not in its own interest when worldwide pressure to decarbonize is bound to increase.

In other words, the high priests of the Almighty Market declare in their house organ “eventually Alberta will have to reduce its dependence on oil.”

It’s easier now, they noted, for politicians like Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney (and his kinder, gentler doppelganger Mr. Mandel) to blame Liberals in Ottawa, citizens in British Columbia and Quebec, and environmental groups in Canada and the United States, “than to admit that the oil industry and the province are suffering from self-inflicted wounds.”

“But the reluctance even to face the need for change is worrying.”

That’s not quite fair to the NDP, which has given some thought to economic diversification.

But the best choice would be for Alberta to work hammer and tong to create what the environmental fringe of the resurgent Democrats south of the Medicine Line calls a “Green New Deal.” In other words, it’s time for governments pick some economic winners instead of doubling down on an industry that increasingly looks like a loser over the long term.

But how likely is that in the Alberta of 2019? Sad to say, not very.

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  1. Excellent post, but one minor correction. You refer to The Economist as “the international magazine for people who wish they were rich”

    I believe a more accurate description would be “the international magazine for smart people who wish they were rich, and rich people who wish they were smart.”

  2. I certainly agree that trying to push people to accept your point of view does not work and comes across as arrogant and turns people off.

    I do however disagree with your belief that Harper should have called for a carbon tax so the world would love Canadian oil. Since the imposition of the NDP’s climate leadership plan I see no difference in opposition to Alberta oil, in fact I would say there is more opposition today than there was 3 years ago. I will certainly admit that I have no solution either.

    You believe if Rachel Notley changed the name of the party she leads she could win easily. My problem with the NDP is this belief that more government is always the solution and private industry can’t be trusted, changing the name won’t change the outlook. An example of this was when Trudeau bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, David you commented(I am doing this from memory) that you felt that government would do a much better job of building the pipeline than private industry. Today you comment it is time for government to pick some economic winners. My thought is government decisions are made to slowly as they cannot be made by one person or without a great deal of consultation, by then the opportunity is lost. What government needs to do is create an environment where businesses want to invest not an environment where the government is doing all the investing! Enjoy your day.

    1. If the government wants to not only pick economic winners, but run them itself, I’m good with that. But I suspect the public wouldn’t be, thanks to 30 years of conditioning by neoliberal propaganda. That said, my comment about the name of the NDP is not a suggestion that Premier Notley change it, but an observation of wonderment at the fact a government so cautious and conservative in its instincts is constantly excoriated as crazy Marxist radicals by a bunch of crazy market-fundamentalist radicals. There can be only one explanation for this, and that’s the name. DJC

  3. Inspired by Mr. Kenney’s Ministry of Truth philosophy, I see the same group of truckers that intentionally held up traffic on the QE2 and other locations, and annoyed their supporters in the process, is now planning to pull the same stunt on the road from here to Ottawa. Lets build our support in Manitoba and Ontario by ticking the people off! You can bet a less friendly media will be sure to highlight the negative impact the slowed traffic caused, something our local media didn’t really cover.

    Really, the whole thing reminds me of the boy complaining to his teacher: “I don’t understand it, I beat up every kid in the class twice, and still nobody likes me.”

  4. I live in the NWT, on the Slave River. The oils sands is sending it pollution directly past my door. The Peace Athabasca Delta is the largest inland delta in North America and it is on three flyways. It used to be that a million birds would pass through a few years ago. It is being increasingly polluted and so is our river system. So it’s not just BC Alberta politicians don’t care about.

  5. Kenney, Mandel, and Notley are standing on the wrong side of history and science.
    The right-wing’s departure from reality may not be entirelyh surprising. What’s really disheartening is that the “progressive” party would join them.

    Bring it on. Alberta’s hyper-militant defense of the indefensible only stiffens resistance.
    If Alberta cannot govern itself responsibly and reduce GHG emissions, Ottawa will have to do it for us.
    Kenney will leave Alberta more isolated than ever.

  6. Will Albertans see an oilsands clean up policy in any of the election platforms of the UCP, AB Party, and NDP?

    And how they’re going to make industry pay for it? Right now less than $2B put aside by industry to pay, under AB’s joke of liability insurance program that the oilsands industry keeps gaming. Even the Auditor General has warned about this huge problem.

    Only the AB Liberals have urged action:

    EXCERPT: ‘CALGARY—The looming, multibillion-dollar cost of cleaning up Alberta’s oilpatch isn’t an emergency, the governing NDP and the official Opposition told the provincial legislature Tuesday.

    The NDP and the United Conservative Party made the statements as they teamed up to shut down an emergency debate on the issue, proposed by Liberal MLA David Swann. The oil industry could face an estimated $260 billion in financial liabilities, a joint investigation by National Observer, Global News, the Toronto Star and StarMetro Calgary revealed last week — a price tag Swann said could be a “silent financial tsunami.”’

    Note that when the Auditor General raised a red flag in 2017, he didn’t have access to the *actual* internal data that AER has, that was leaked in 2018.

    EXCERPT: ‘
    Kelly Cryderman
    Published May 5, 2017
    Updated May 5, 2017

    The estimated cost to clean up Alberta’s mines, mostly oil sands operations, has jumped in recent years – to $23.2-billion as of 2016.

    According to new figures from the Alberta Energy Regulator, the total cleanup liability increased almost 12 per cent, from $20.8 billion in 2014, due to an uptick in oil sands mining activity. The province’s energy watchdog calculates the figure, which looks at end costs once mines are done their productive lives, based on data provided by the companies themselves.;’

  7. I think most of Alberta must be saying “Stephen who”? It’s like the former Edmonton mayor just woke up from quite a Rip Van Winkle sleep at the end of the year.

    As Edmonton mayor, Mandel could be relied on for pithy quotes and was very good at channeling frustration and impatience. It is a bit odd he has been so quiet for so long. I suppose it is hard to get much attention when you lead a smaller party, particularly when you don’t have a seat in the Alberta legislature. I think the Alberta party made a mistake in not choosing one of its existing Calgary MLA’s as leader. They might not be as pithy, but if no one is paying attention that does not count for much, as for Mandel’s experience – it is mostly at the civic vs. the provincial level, which is a whole different ball game. I also think it would also have been much easier for the Alberta Party to break through in Calgary with a Calgary leader and an appeal to the many former PC’s there.

    However, I think Mandel may have finally figured out that if the Alberta Party wants to go anywhere, it will have to go after Kenney and the UCP, not the NDP. The Alberta Party’s target voters are more moderate/centrist conservatives, you know former PC’s – the kind of voters who are holding their nose right now and supporting Kenney, because they don’t quite see the Alberta Party as a serious alternative. Not surprisingly, the Alberta Party’s less confrontational approach to rehabilitating Alberta’s dirty crude image in the US and elsewhere in Canada is not that different from the approach the former PC’s took. However, I wonder if it is a bit too late for PR now. I think the PC’s and the Federal Conservatives failure to take the environment seriously over their last 10 years in power made Alberta a bullseye target for environmentalists everywhere. I certainly don’t think any party that wants to get rid of the carbon tax here, confrontational or not, will be taken seriously outside of Alberta and if such a party comes to power, this will only add to our troubles in getting pipeline projects approved beyond our provincial borders.

    I suppose we will have to wait and see if Mandel has finally started to find his voice again or if this attack on the UCP is just a one time thing and Alberta voters will just go back to ignoring him and the Alberta Party.

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