Canadians have watched in dismay as conspiracy-addled anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters gathered on streets to demand an end to science-based public health orders designed to protect all of us. In some provinces, like Alberta, they clearly influenced the government’s response to the pandemic.
Alberta is fertile ground for conspiracy narratives, in part because the United Conservative Party government also traffics in conspiracy. A good example is Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s response to the Trudeau government’s decision to engage Canadians about a just transition strategy: “The federal government’s intention to hastily phase out Canada’s world-class oil and gas industry is extremely harmful to the hundreds of thousands who directly and indirectly work in the sector…”
There is simply no evidence the Liberals are planning to shut down or phase out Canada’s five million barrels per day of oil production. In fact, there is plenty of evidence of support for the hydrocarbon sector. For example, why else would Ottawa buy a pipeline company (Trans Mountain) for $4.5 billion and then spend another $12.6 billion to complete a 525,000-barrels-per-day new pipeline (Trans Mountain Expansion) to the West Coast in the face of considerable public opposition from British Columbia?
The governments in Alberta and Ottawa, however, view the energy transition very differently.
The Liberals came to power in 2015 believing both that the global energy system is being transformed by new technologies and that climate change constituted a crisis requiring significant government intervention, but that the energy transition would take decades. More evolution than revolution, as Prof. Vaclav Smil, dean of energy transition scholars, likes to say. “Pipelines and wind turbines” was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign slogan. This middle-ground strategy has changed over time as global governments, including Canada, have ramped up climate policy.
For better or for worse, decarbonizing oil and gas production while letting market forces determine supply, not dismantling and phasing out, is still Ottawa’s fundamental approach to the national hydrocarbon sector.
The UCP clearly sees the world differently. Premier Jason Kenney is the energy status quo’s greatest champion. Until recently, he didn’t even acknowledge the energy transition. And who can forget his comment to the Globe and Mail editorial board that climate change is a “flavour of the month”?
Alberta has no climate plan because the UCP dismantled the one implemented by its NDP predecessor. Kenney now concedes only that change will be slow and hydrocarbons will be used for a long time.
“A lot of the political conversation about an energy transition has involved the suggestion that an energy transition is anti-Alberta, or something happening only in Canada, or a thing that could be stopped by a more pro-oil federal government,” says pollster Bruce Anderson.
“But Canadians and most Albertans don’t see it that way — they believe whatever disruption a transition will cause is necessary and inevitable, and they want governments to work together on a plan to adapt our economy, not debate whether we need to or not.”
Canada needs a just transition plan. The global switch from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) to low-emission electricity and clean fuels like biofuels and hydrogen is a fundamental restructuring of the global economy primarily driven by technology change, capital and markets, and secondarily by governments. Change by its nature is disruptive. The transition is gathering steam and, inevitably, there will be winners and losers. It is only fair that the losers, like coal communities, not be abandoned.
Decarbonizing oil and gas production while letting market forces determine supply, not dismantling and phasing out, is still Ottawa’s fundamental approach to the national hydrocarbon sector, writes energy and climate journalist @politicalham. #ableg
But rapid change is already affecting Canadian oil and gas. From a high of 229,000 in 2014, direct employment has fallen to 185,000 today; the figures for Alberta are 180,000 and 150,000, respectively. According to Energi Media experts (here and here), another 50,000 could be unemployed as early as mid-decade as the oilpatch aggressively pursues efficiencies and lower costs by adopting new digital technologies. Sometime this decade, or soon after, peak oil demand and subsequent decline will add more pressure to oil and gas companies to eliminate jobs.
After months of intense lobbying pressure from civil society groups, Ottawa says it will consult Canadians about a just transition strategy.
“Canadians have expressed their expectations that the government will ensure that the low-carbon transition is just and equitable so that equity-deserving groups — such as women, Indigenous peoples, racialized individuals, people with disabilities, and youth — are able to benefit from new jobs and opportunities,” Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a press release.
Unfortunately, Savage’s take on the announcement was more conspiracy-mongering: “Alberta will continue to tirelessly advocate on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of workers whose livelihoods depend on the industry. We expect the federal government to stand up for Alberta’s world-leading oil and gas sector instead of trying to dismantle it.”
A cynic might argue this is just another example of governments engaging in political theatre, fighting in public while cordially cutting deals behind the scenes. There is evidence for this point of view, given the Kenney UCP regularly beats Trudeau like a political pinata in the media, but Alberta still manages to work productively with the federal government, such as setting industry emissions pricing and sitting on working groups dealing with carbon capture and small modular reactors.
But the cynic would be missing the real harm that Alberta’s intransigent bellicosity does to the Canadian public discourse. In the case of a federal just transition strategy, Alberta is once again sucking the oxygen out of the national energy conversation by stomping its feet and having a toddler-style tantrum. Ottawa has to be the adult in the room because in two or three decades, economies will be powered primarily by clean electricity and low-carbon biofuels. Oil and gas will still be used, but in ever-shrinking volumes. The economy of the future is clearly electric.
Witness the escalating competition between the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea for market share of the burgeoning electric transportation sector. EV cars and trucks, electric buses, battery factories, all the related technologies and supply chains — this is the foundation of the 21st-century economy, and successful competitors will attract capital, create good-paying jobs, and lay the foundation for Canada’s ongoing prosperity.
Experts, be they academics or corporate executives or environmental groups, have told me over and over during interviews that policy and regulatory frameworks are critical to adapting and thriving during the transition. Successful policy depends on constructive politics, which in turn relies on constructive dialogue between Canadians and between the national government and the provinces.
How can Canada have a constructive conversation about the energy transition if the epicentre of the country’s largest export sector continually frames the issue as a conspiracy?
The simple answer is that it can’t. And it doesn’t appear that Kenney and his party, with its large and vocal conspiracy-narrative-supporting caucus, is going to improve any time soon. That other conservative premiers, like Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford, take their lead on energy and climate issues from Alberta only compounds the problem.
Is there a solution? Absent a change of heart from Kenney, the best option is to elevate more reasonable Alberta voices. For example, Adam Legge, who heads up the Business Council of Alberta, acknowledges the importance of his province adapting to the energy transition.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, has long been an advocate for a just transition and an Alberta energy transition plan.
The Energy Futures Lab headed by engineer Alison Cretney has advanced many innovative ideas in recent years.
There are plenty more Alberta civil society voices who are ready and willing to contribute constructively to a national discussion about a just transition. They couldn’t possibly do worse than Jason Kenney and Sonya Savage.
Markham Hislop is a Canadian energy and climate journalist and host of the Energi Talks podcast.
Editor's note: This article was corrected to clarify that hydrogen is not a biofuel.