Brace yourselves, folks. If you thought the conversation about the federal government’s so-called “just transition” couldn’t get any dumber, you’re about to be proven wrong. That’s because Alberta’s premier, her senior staffers and most of the province’s pundit class are pretending an internal federal government document from last June contains its plan for the imminent demise of the oil and gas industry.
There’s just one small problem: it’s not even remotely close to true.
First, the non-smoking gun in question. It’s a package of committee meeting briefing materials for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson that includes speaking notes, background materials and a list of some questions he might get and answers he could give to them.
It’s not much of a secret, given that it was posted publicly on a government transparency website last September. But buried in there is a set of figures about potential labour market impacts of the global energy transition that are being misconstrued — either through malice or incompetence — by the premier and her various proxies.
“What kind of leader intentionally throws hundreds of thousands of his own citizens on the unemployment line?” Rob Anderson, the principal secretary to Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, asked rhetorically on Twitter. “Trudeau has crossed a line here.” Smith went even further, suggesting the document revealed a plan to eliminate 2.7 million jobs nationwide.
That framing was picked up by the holy trinity of Postmedia’s conservative Alberta columnists (Staples, Bell and Braid), who all carried versions of it, along with inflammatory comments from Smith, in their columns on the subject. Braid described the briefing documents as “political dynamite,” while Staples wrote: “This plan might well strike you as madness, as a federal government that has lost all humility and common sense.” Bell, in his inimitable style, cut right to the chase. “Energy jobs, about 202,000 workers gone,” he wrote. “In Alberta, 187,000 jobs toast. Read that number again.”
Curiously, none of the three included a link to the document in the online versions of their columns.
If you actually bother to read it, and clearly almost nobody has, the contents are far more benign. It does not, as Bell and Anderson are claiming, suggest the jobs in Alberta’s oil and gas industry will be eliminated. Instead, it points out that they will be impacted by the global transition to lower-carbon technology, and that the federal government should prepare to help where and how it can.
I’ve written briefing materials like these before and I understand why the language here (on Page 68, I might add) wasn’t as precise as it should have been. The staffer who wrote it had Wilkinson’s eyes in mind, not those of bad-faith politicians and pundits who would spin the lack of clarity as nefarious intent.
And just to make sure, I reached out to a senior official in Wilkinson’s office in order to confirm my reading of this particular section — that it was describing the number of jobs impacted by the transition, not the number that would be eliminated. “We as a government do not intend to eliminate a single oil and gas job,” they said.
Is the federal government planning to phase out hundreds of thousands of jobs in Alberta (and millions across the country) through its "just transition" act? Of course not. But that's not what Alberta's premier and pundits would have us believe.
But the feelings of those who already bought the Alberta government’s line — or worse, tried to sell it — won’t be swayed by these facts. They’ve decided to treat the just transition as an opportunity to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of their supporters, and as I’ve written recently, the Trudeau Liberals are helping them do it. Whether that’s on purpose or not is an open question, but either way, this pairing of ambitious policy with atrocious communications is fast becoming the Trudeau government’s unofficial brand when it comes to climate change.
The truth, not that it seems to matter, is that the global energy transition will have an impact on oil-producing regions like Alberta whether they acknowledge it or not. Indeed, it already has. Even in Texas, where proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and a Republican state government has made building oil and gas projects as easy as opening a lemonade stand, oil and gas jobs are on a clear downward trend.
Despite the post-COVID boom in commodity prices, as of August 2022, there were 201,700 people employed in the state’s upstream oil and gas business — 107,200 fewer than December 2014.
And while Albertans may want to blame the Trudeau government for the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or even suggest it’s “killing” their oil and gas industry, that’s not what the industry’s leaders are saying.
“We’re not doing this because we’re being regulated to do it,” Pathways Alliance CEO Kendall Dilling said recently. “We’re doing this because our CEOs truly have a conviction that we don’t have a long-term future if we can’t address what’s been our Achilles heel: our greenhouse gas emissions.”
And guess what? It’s the market that’s driving this change, not the government. “We know it’s what’s necessary for our long-term sustainability,” he said. “It’s also our financial institutions, our insurers, our shareholders and a host of other stakeholders who are saying that they want to see us recreate ourselves and be relevant in a low-carbon future.”
But blaming the market is an uncomfortable position for conservative politicians and pundits who otherwise worship at its altar. And while they could embrace the complexity and nuance around this deeply important issue, it’s much easier to keep seeding and harvesting the anti-Ottawa rage that grows so easily in Alberta.
May’s provincial election will be a litmus test for a number of issues, from Danielle Smith’s popularity to Rachel Notley’s ability to win over voters in Calgary. But perhaps the most important one will be just how much bullshit Albertans can be fed before their gag reflex finally kicks in.