I spent four years in the Alberta legislature with Rachel Notley, from 2008 to 2012. I liked and admired her and was delighted when she became premier in 2015. Today when I watch her on pipeline and oil issues I ask myself, what happened to the Rachel Notley I knew? And I wonder if the same thing will happen to John Horgan.

Before they formed government, Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP were effective critics of the oil industry who called for higher royalties, solutions to global warming, and upgrading more bitumen in Alberta. In the political blink of an eye they became crusading champions for Texas-based corporation Kinder Morgan, which wants to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline to carry raw bitumen from Alberta to the port of Vancouver, to be shipped for processing abroad. The companies that extract Alberta’s bitumen are mostly foreign owned and pay as little as one per cent in royalties, and they have tens of billions of dollars in unfunded environmental liabilities at risk to taxpayers.

So how to explain Notley’s reversal? Let’s start by dispensing with some myths being spread by her, the media, and industry.

First, this is not about getting more royalties. Royalties are the price industry pays to buy the raw bitumen from its owner, the Alberta government. Alberta’s royalty rates were chopped to fire sale levels in 1997 by the Klein government and Notley has left them there. In 2016, for example, Syncrude had gross revenues of $3.4 billion and paid a mere $37 million in royalties, just over one per cent. The past two years the Alberta government earned more from liquor sales and gambling than from selling almost three million barrels of bitumen a day to big oil companies. It is a silent scandal Alberta’s NDP government refuses to address.

Second, building or blocking this pipeline is neither an economic bonanza nor an economic disaster for Alberta or Canada. Trans Mountain will reduce transportation costs for oil companies and open new markets for bitumen, but its capacity only covers about 12 per cent of Canada’s total oil production, and alternate pipeline projects are underway.

Third, this is not about creating long-term jobs, because pipelines take only a few people to operate and the oil industry is replacing people with technology everywhere it can. Neither is it about economic development: shipping raw material for processing in other countries is the model for colonies, not for fully developed economies.

So why is Rachel Notley throwing the country into political crisis?

The easy answer is that it improves her chances in next year’s election, but that glosses over this much deeper reality: Rachel Notley may be in office but the oil industry is in power. Wherever its interests are concerned the oil industry runs Alberta. To a lesser but significant degree the same thing applies in Ottawa.

Here is what I mean. Governments are made of many parts and in a healthy democracy these parts counterbalance one another. Opposition parties counterbalance governing parties; the courts counterbalance legislatures; regulators counterbalance industries, and so on.

So how to explain Notley’s reversal? Let’s start by dispensing with some myths being spread by her, the media, and industry. #cdnpoli #ableg

Not so in Alberta, at least not when the interests of the oil industry are at stake. For decades the industry has spent millions of dollars targeting political parties on both sides of the legislature; civil servants; universities; think tanks; regulators; non-profit groups; the media; and more. The industry has formed a state within the state that I call “oil’s deep state.”

The 2016 conviction of Bruce Carson on charges of illegal lobbying relating to the oil industry exposed how oil’s deep state operates. Carson had been a close adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper. Material seized by police and presented in court showed the oil industry’s sweeping strategies and remarkably close relations with political leaders, top federal and provincial civil servants, and universities. In her verdict, the judge found it was “especially egregious” that the public “had no knowledge of what was transpiring behind the scene with ministers, deputy ministers, and other very senior officials in government, both federal and provincial” as the oil industry worked to shape national energy policy to meet its private commercial interest.

The oil industry takes what it calls a “whole of government approach,” a phrase that should chill the bones of anyone who cares for democracy. A July 2017 strategy document by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) made clear what a whole-of-government approach means for Alberta: a “steering committee” drawn from industry; the premier’s office; the ministries of energy, economic development, and environment; and the Alberta Energy Regulator, that “would provide government and industry oversight to…drive performance on key files.”

It’s a deliberate short-circuiting of democracy. Industry sits at the table with senior politicians, civil servants, and regulators (some of whom are already close allies of industry) to “provide oversight” on issues like environmental protection and Indigenous land claims. A more blatant display of corporate power in a modern democracy is hard to imagine, and the same CAPP document advocates a similar approach to the federal government. Industry is entitled to input on these issues, but not to oversight.

Will oil’s deep state gain control of B.C. and John Horgan? Vast sums of money and talent are being trained by industry at B.C. to get the Trans Mountain pipeline built. Intense meetings will be underway with MLAs of every party; civil servants will be invited to join steering committees with industry, or perhaps jump to richer positions in industry; grants will be dangled at universities and think tanks by oil-friendly interests; regulators will be pressed; reporters will be charmed; and chambers of commerce, service clubs, municipalities, and First Nations across the province will be pumped with sophisticated pro-oil-industry messages and encouraged to speak out as if on their own initiative. Meanwhile issues such as global warming, healthy economic development, and Indigenous land claims are further delayed.

This is a bitter situation for Canadians to face for the sake of a pipeline, but it’s reality when oil’s deep state runs governments.

Kevin Taft led the Alberta Liberal Party from 2003 to 2008. He is author of Oil’s Deep State, published by Lorimer in 2017.

Keep reading

This article needs to be distributed widely. I believe Kevin Taft has done his research, but also, what he says resonates with my experience as an Albertan of many years. Alberta is a petro-state....and if Canadians, including our national media, continue to look the other way and pretend it isn't so, our entire country will fall under the sway of a twilight industry.
The most damning facts are how little actual royalties they pay, how little real value we Canadians have received by letting them run the show. As Taft suggests, it is going to get worse, as they cut jobs and use automation to maximize their take....not to mention fund the campaign of disinformation that makes Joe citizen think there's a six figure income for him in continuing to cheerlead for Big Oil.

In the Calgary pro-pipeline rally of a few days ago corporate produced signs that looked like Alberta licence plates had this caption on the bottom: "In Bitumen We Trust". That's a petro-state mentality, where God once stood, a junk fossil fuel has seized power.

Ridiculous....but that's the new face of activism in Alberta.

Hi Mary,
Thanks for your comment. Please email it out to all of your friends. Sharing stories that matter to you helps build the audience and this is really important.


It's just not profitable for other national media to see the light and change their ways, which is why I can't feel bad about big media's continuous decline. Someone else will have to fill in the void, but I'm confident that it will happen.

Who can read this and not want to shut the industry down? It will happily sacrifice democracy and then the future of life on Earth.

"...The easy answer is that it improves her chances in next year’s election..."

Sure, but it also tells me that she's been lying all these years, idealistically harping at the levers of power knowing full well she'd be doing the exact same thing as them. A fake!

I would like to invite 8 people under the age of 32 who live, work - looking for work or study in Alberta to have an online conversation on the future for Energy in Alberta. I am looking for Indigenous, Settler, 1st generation immigrant. For more information: [email protected]

Interesting Bruce. I hope some young people take you up on it, because truly, their future doesn't look too bright to me, if we continue down this old business as usual and mum's the word, path.

Good luck.

Thank you for the comment, Bruce.

Everyone should read Kevin Taft’s book. It explains how we arrived in this oily mess.

Thanks Kevin. I have always admired your service to this province, and it is good to see you continue when it comes to our current premier. I agree with you here, and this is hard as a NDP supporter and member of AUPE. While there are many good things that this government have done for people like myself in the areas of labour legislation and reform of the government bodies(the latest cap of university administrators' salaries is a good example)but there capitulation to the oil industry is worrying. While the oil industry has a great influence, the same would be true is there were another industry that dominated us. I see this also in the University of Calgary where I work when it comes to the influence that exists in campus. Examples are the Friends of Science, former President Cannon's conflict of interest with Enbridge, and the School for Public Policy which is always complaining that the provincial government is not doing as much to help the oil industry. I look forward to reading your book for future reference in informing the public. I also will keep supporting this publication to do the journalism that is necessary to ensure that other voices and realities are heard.

Thank you so much for supporting National Observer, David, and for taking time to comment. Your subscription makes National Observer's work possible.

The fact that entire party platforms have been fabricated and rolled out as solemn commitments to win elections while the "real" plans are kept secret until they can be forced on unwilling voters. This is criminal conspiracy, fraud, etc, that would be plastered across global headlines as a Coup if it involved a developing country. Pointless to scrap FPTP when political parties pick candidates, have all the power and their agendas become government policy. Those not involved would be demanding investigations, yet no parties are speaking up and people running for candidate that do are not chosen.

Notley hasn't just betrayed voters with almost every policy, spewed vitriol along with rhetoric and absolute lies to promote schizoid policies like the industry designed Cimate Change Plan, she portrays us as terrorists. I now understand why people don't vote. The situation with Crudeau is the same - campaign as left with lies then rule from the right.