Public institutions in Alberta had lost the ability to hold a serious discussion on global warming and the use of oil.
by Kevin Taft
The nature of deep states is to work across the broad governing system rather than to commit fully to one political party. All political parties are eventually driven from power and that is not a risk members of a deep state want to run. Canada’s oil industry is global and it does business with hard conservatives in Texas, social democrats in Norway and a long list of colonels, generals, presidents, and sheiks. Having a grip on both the opposition party and the governing party in Alberta was just prudent, and if an unexpected twist of fate put a third party in office, there were other resources to employ. Deep states are opportunistically partisan in order to endure. It took less than twelve hours after the election for deep state Alberta to begin asserting itself with the New Democratic government of Rachel Notley.
The New Democratic Party was based on a complicated mixture of public and private sector unions, social justice advocates, intellectuals, progressives and environmentalists. Though a respected opposition party, they had never come close to forming government in Alberta, and when the campaign began in April 2015, no one expected them to win, including their own candidates and organizers.
Behind their well-spoken and appealing leader, Rachel Notley, they ran a smooth and smart campaign, and mistakes by the PCs and Wildrose added to the voter appetite for change, which had grown strong since the political nuptials of Jim Prentice and Danielle Smith. The NDP won a solid majority that made front pages across the country. The scale of the surprise and the bloody-mindedness of the voters can be judged by campaign budgets. The NDP swept every seat in Edmonton and carried several smaller cities. They won fifteen of Calgary’s twenty-five seats, and in eleven of those, their candidates spent less than $1,000. In one constituency, the NDP candidate spent $350 to defeat the PC incumbent; the record went to Brandy Payne, who overcame the $85,000 campaign of an incumbent PC cabinet minister by spending $240, the price of a cheap suit marked down for clearance. The NDP victor in Medicine Hat, Robert Wanner, had to be coaxed into the race three weeks before election day to replace a candidate who withdrew after facing assault charges; Wanner ended up as Speaker of the Alberta Legislature.
The Notley government had to overcome its inexperience while dealing with a collapse of world oil prices and a sharply slowing Alberta economy. The provincial treasury they inherited had run deficits every year since 2008, despite record exports of oil and gas, a sign of how little the PCs were collecting from the resource. Alberta, with a population smaller than metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, was selling more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia or anyone else, yet was still sliding into debt. Despite controversies, the Notley government implemented several progressive policies the previous government would not have considered: raising minimum wages, ending the flat tax, and increasing corporate taxes. Its first bill was an important step to reduce the sway of big donors in Alberta politics by banning union and corporate donations to political parties. It even appointed a prominent environmental activist and former co-director of Greenpeace to co-chair the government’s Oil Sands Advisory Group.
Alberta was selling more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia or anyone else, yet was still sliding into debt.
Did that mean the oil deep state was defeated in Alberta? Not for a moment. In her speech on election night and again in her news conference the next morning, Notley emphasized her government’s openness to its “partners in the energy industry.” She told reporters, “I’m going to be reaching out to industry and they can count on us to work collaboratively with them.” In response to a reporter’s question, she reiterated her message to the energy industry: “Things are going to be just A-OK over here in Alberta.” She promised many phone calls and conversations with corporate leaders, and in her first Question Period as premier said, “Just to be clear, I’m very committed to ensuring that our energy industry is supported.” These were understandable messages from a new government in an economy dominated by one industry, but as the NDP’s first year in office passed, the partnership began to look like a merger.
In late November 2015, Premier Notley presented the work of her Climate Leadership Panel, which formed the basis of her government’s plan to help address global warming. “Our goal,” explained the premier, “is to become one of the world’s most progressive and forwardlooking energy producers.”
Two of the plan’s biggest components were bold and really could reduce emissions: a carbon tax and an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power plants. But any gains from these were going to be lost to the staggering increase the plan allowed for oil sands and other oil and gas expansion; emissions would be 55 percent higher in 2030 than they were in 2005. The premier was joined on stage by the heads of some of the biggest oil sands producers, including Steve Williams, CEO of Suncor, who said, “This plan will make one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions a leader in addressing the climate change challenge.” This statement was a blatant contradiction. It is not possible to address climate change with such a big jump in CO2 emissions.
Ten weeks later, at the end of January 2016, the premier announced the results of the government’s royalty review. There were some minor adjustments, but the royalty rates remained essentially as they were. The industry quietly supported the government’s position, a complete reversal of its prolonged rage over the 2007 royalty review commissioned by PC Premier Ed Stelmach, which concluded royalties had been far too low for far too long – a stance the NDP of the day had supported. In that case, extraordinary pressure from the industry meant royalties never really rose and Stelmach was driven from office.
A much louder signal that Alberta’s NDP government was now aligned with the oil industry came that April when the federal NDP held its convention in Edmonton. A debate arose in the convention about a document called the “Leap Manifesto,” which national party delegates agreed should be considered through a long process leading up to its 2018 convention. The Leap Manifesto was supported by a group of outspoken advocates for reducing emissions, including Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and David Suzuki. Barely two pages long, the document used occasionally flamboyant language to speed through several issues, including the rights of Indigenous peoples, the need to invest in public infrastructure and calls to end trade deals and provide a universal annual income for Canadians. It might have disappeared from view except that it also took a stand on global warming, opposing any new pipelines and calling for the phasing out of fossil fuel use in Canada by 2050, thirty-four years into the future and fifty-eight years after the Rio Earth Summit.
Alberta’s oil industry barely had to say a word in opposition; members of the Notley government did it for them, with vehemence. The premier called the document “ill-informed, naïve, and… tone deaf” and said its ideas on energy infrastructure would “never form any part of our policy.”
Shannon Philips, environment minister in the Notley government, fired a long string of attacks at the document that included calling it “ungenerous, short-sighted and… fundamentally a betrayal.” Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour and a pillar of the Alberta NDP, said they “had nothing to do with this nonsense” and took a swing at some of the document’s backers: “These downtown Toronto political dilettantes come to Alberta and track their garbage across our front lawn,” ignoring the support the document had across the country.
As if to drive home her pro-oil message, less than two weeks later, Notley indicated the NDP might be willing to reverse its longstanding opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline to the west coast of BC. “I’m not completely closed on it,” she told reporters, “and I will say my opinion on this has evolved and changed a little bit over time.” The leaders of both the Official Opposition Wildrose Party and the third party PCs were pleased with the premier’s stance. Fifteen days later, Enbridge, the backer of Northern Gateway, asked the National Energy Board for a three-year extension to the pipeline’s approval permit. The once-dead project seemed to be breathing in its grave.
It is not possible to address climate change with such a big jump in CO2 emissions … increasing oil sand production was not going to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Historically, the NDP had been effective critics of the oil industry, pushing for higher royalties, opposing the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines and demanding serious action to address global warming. Times changed. The response to the Leap Manifesto was more than just strong words. Strong words register with those who speak them, as well as with those who hear them. In speaking those words, the NDP were not just re-defining themselves to others, they were re-defining themselves to themselves. They were establishing rules of political discourse that framed both language and thought, and under these rules, it was now off limits for NDP members to think or speak about phasing out oil and gas. They were now wholly in the corner of the petroleum industry, fighting for oil sands production and working hard to outdo Jim Prentice, Stephen Harper and their opponents in the Alberta legislature as pipeline and oil sands champions.
By the first anniversary of their surprise election victory, it seemed no one was left in the Alberta legislature to speak truth to power, to question the wisdom of adding another pipeline or to point out the glaring fact that increasing oil sands production was not going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Notley government had entered a world made by and for the production of oil. The oil deep state guided them down the same path as the previous government, toward developing the oil sands, defusing opposition from environmentalists and First Nations and building pipelines. Even the new government’s Climate Leadership Panel, the one that recommended a form of carbon tax and the phasing out of coal-burning power plants, accepted emission levels for Alberta more than 60 percent higher than the 1990 levels, never noting that 1990 levels were so high they had been the maximum standard recommended by the Rio Earth Summit. In fact, the panel’s levels were so high they made it virtually impossible for Canada to meet its international commitments, but no one fussed; it was a silent and perfect victory for the deep state. There was no voice to ask what the offsetting costs of global warming would be. No voice to say that if the world followed Alberta’s self-aggrandizing “leadership,” there would be a shocking upward spike in global CO2 levels.
In the legislature, the Wildrose and PCs thought these levels were punitive for the industry, with several members of the Wildrose caucus drawing bizarre parallels between the proposed carbon tax and the Soviet-era genocide of six million Ukrainians. Elsewhere – in universities, the media, research agencies – there was little criticism. Debates on the minor points of the oil agenda were unavoidable, but debates about its general direction were barely tolerated. The harsh response to the Leap Manifesto was one sign of this; it was shouted down. Public institutions in Alberta had lost the ability to hold a serious discussion on global warming and the use of oil.
This was part of a larger picture. The 1 percent royalty system set up in the 1990s under energy minister Patricia Black reached peak impact in the years before the NDP government was elected, creating the oil sands equivalent of a gold rush. The oil sands were so big that even a meagre portion of the wealth they generated could go a long way among Alberta’s relatively small population. Average incomes and retail sales in Alberta had easily topped those in other provinces. Jobs were plentiful, taxes were low and immigrants from other provinces and countries poured in. Most Albertans had never had it so good and saw the oil industry – especially the oil sands – as the key to the province’s future.
A threat to the industry was now a threat to Albertans. Not many people wanted to face the fact that Alberta’s situation was economically and environmentally unsustainable.
Excerpted from Oil’s Deep State © by Kevin Taft, a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and former Leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta (2004-2008). Prior to his election, he worked in various public policy roles (1973-2000) in the Alberta government’s private and non-profit sectors. From 1986 to 1991, he was CEO of the ExTerra Foundation, which mounted one of history’s largest paleontological expeditions in China’s Gobi Desert, Alberta’s badlands, and the Canadian Arctic. He is the author of five books and many research studies and articles on political and economic issues in Alberta.