Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Recent Alberta governments of both the left and the right have promised working families they can bring back “the good times” and restore jobs in the oilpatch, and have falsely told Albertans that new pipelines to tidewater would result in greater wealth and revived investment.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, in contrast, has been trying to tell working-class Albertans a more complex and challenging story. “We have seen the last of the boom years,” McGowan told a just transition conference in Edmonton in the summer of 2019.
As he explains, a trifecta of factors is fundamentally impacting Alberta’s oilsands. First, there is an oversupply of oil in the market, driven by the fracking revolution in the U.S. Second, automation is transforming the oilpatch, such that even a return of some capital investment will not bring back lost jobs.
“For example,” noted McGowan, “you have drilling rigs that used to need 15, sometimes 20 people to operate. The new drilling rigs can be operated by two people with laptops.”
And third, climate change and the global policy response mean demand for Alberta bitumen and investment dollars will be in long-term decline. The upshot is we will not see a return of large-scale employment to Alberta’s oilpatch, regardless of who is in government. Instead, McGowan and the AFL have sought to advance a vision for what they call “The Next Alberta,” in which they urge the provincial government to make the energy transition a top priority.
Can the Alberta NDP be straight with Albertans and embrace a new narrative about the province’s future, one that explains demand for fossil fuels will now be in steady decline, and that this necessitates a speedy transformation to renewable energy and a carbon-free economy? If Alberta can capture the same can-do spirit that has marked so much of its economic history, this grand task can be a generational opportunity.
“Many want the Alberta NDP to tell an honest story about what is necessary in order to meet the climate targets, and the challenges that will entail, but also the opportunities that go with that,” Bill Kilgannon, executive director of the Alberta-based Parkland Institute, told me.
But Kilgannon, who also served as a chief of staff to three ministers (not with the energy or environmental portfolios) under the Notley government, also wants Canadians outside Alberta to appreciate how challenging this task is and to be consistent in their demands. “As far as I know, no one in the Ontario NDP is saying: ‘Shut down the fossil fuel auto industry,’” he observed. Fair point.
“We’re talking about real people’s lives and livelihoods, and so we need to do this in a way that doesn’t destroy those lives and can offer them a real alternative,” said Kilgannon. He believes the terrain has shifted such that the NDP can say today what might have felt too hard in 2015.
“It has to be about articulating a real plan that speaks to the challenges and opportunities. The NDP has to tell the story about what this existential challenge means. They need to talk about what is going on in the world, what it means for the future of oil and gas and that it means no new fossil fuel infrastructure.”
"A key indicator that a government understands the #ClimateEmergency is a willingness to tell the truth," writes @SethDKlein. In Alberta, that means "admitting the oil and gas sector needs to be ... managed for wind-down over the next 20-30 years."
He also contends this is an active debate within the NDP. (I reached out to the Alberta NDP for their thoughts for this article, but unfortunately, the environment critic for the caucus was not available for an interview.)
A key indicator that a government understands the climate emergency is a willingness to tell the truth. In Alberta’s case, that doesn’t mean we have to shut down the oilsands tomorrow. But it does mean admitting the oil and gas sector needs to be carefully and thoughtfully managed for wind-down over the next 20 to 30 years.
Would doing so provide Jason Kenney with the foil he wants in the next election? Perhaps. But maybe, after all the upheaval and false promises of recent years, Albertans would respect a political party that respects them enough to tell them the truth.
A number of factors are shifting Alberta’s political and economic terrain. Some of the most damaging extreme weather events to hit Canada in recent years have occurred in Alberta, including the 2016 wildfire — “The Beast” — that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray and destroyed 2,400 homes and businesses, and the 2013 floods that devastated large swaths of southern Alberta, driving home that the climate emergency is not some distant threat.
Ongoing job losses within the oil and gas sector — the industry has shed 36,000 jobs in Alberta since 2013 — and the continuing withdrawal of investment in the oilsands by leading international oil companies are exposing the tumult of relying on this industry and the willingness of the industry’s major players to abandon workers.
This provides an opening for the Alberta NDP to be more confrontational with the industry. The key is to carefully and consistently distinguish between the corporations and its workers, and to ensure those employed in the sector do not feel under attack. That ought to be doable. After all, in the years since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, the major oil companies have continued to record massive profits, even as they laid off tens of thousands of people and abandoned communities from which their wealth was amassed. According to Ian Hussey, a researcher with the Parkland Institute, “There is less trust of the industry.” He believes most Albertans understand there is no going back to the heydays of the 2004-14 boom.
Contrary to simplistic national caricatures of Alberta, there is in fact a vibrant climate movement in the province. Climate Justice Edmonton is very active, along with many young 350.org and Indigenous climate leaders. The global Sept. 27, 2019, climate strike protests drew a crowd of approximately 5,000 in Edmonton. And when Greta Thunberg came to Edmonton on Oct. 18, 2019, to join a #FridaysForFuture climate strike, 10,000 to 12,000 Albertans joined her in front of the provincial legislature.
These events are reflected in opinion polls, revealing movement in the political-cultural landscape. Opposition to climate action among Albertans is often overstated. In a 2019 Abacus survey* I commissioned as part of the research for my book (A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency), the level of support in the province for climate action was heartening, notwithstanding Alberta’s current economic reliance on fossil fuels. For example:
- 58 per cent of Albertans report they either think about climate change often and are getting really anxious, or think about it sometimes and are getting increasingly worried. That’s lower than other regions of Canada, but still a majority who are worried.
- 47 per cent of Albertans agreed climate change is now an emergency, or will likely be one in the next few years.
- 67 per cent of Albertans agreed climate change represents a major threat to our children and grandchildren.
- Surprisingly, 50 per cent of Albertans support or can accept phasing out the extraction and export of fossil fuels over the next 20 to 30 years.
- 51 per cent support or can accept banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2030.
- 64 per cent of Albertans support or can accept requiring all new buildings and homes to heat space and water without fossil fuels by 2022.
- 62 per cent of Albertans support our governments making massive investments in new green infrastructure, such as renewable energy (solar panel fields, wind farms, geothermal energy, tidal energy), building retrofits, high-speed rail, mass public transit and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as reforestation.
- When given a definition of the Green New Deal, 56 per cent of Albertans support it (and only 21 per cent oppose it).
- Only 18 per cent of Albertans say they would want their children to be employed in the oil and gas industry.
All of these views are stronger among younger voters. Climate activist Emma Jackson (who works with 350.org and is active with Climate Justice Edmonton) contends, “There is a massive generational distinction that I have seen. I think that young people in Alberta really, deeply understand the climate crises and are hungry to see their province taking far more ambitious action.” She wants to see training and alternatives that allow younger Albertans to envision a different future.
Hannah Gelderman, another activist with Climate Justice Edmonton, also believes “the broader political terrain has shifted. People are more aware of the climate crisis and that transition is coming, that it will be hard but possible. People could be galvanized by a real plan that looks out for people’s well-being. But there’s been a lack of leadership.”
Jackson, Gelderman and other Climate Justice Edmonton activists would like to see a coalition of organizations in Alberta calling for a Green New Deal. They believe such a populist program, centred on large-scale investment and job creation, is needed not only to tackle the climate emergency and offer employment security, but also to confront a troubling rise in the far right that is making its own populist appeal.
The Notley NDP folks have thus far been fierce in their defence of an incremental approach, insisting politics, especially in Alberta, is about the art of the possible. The problem, however, as the great climate leader Bill McKibben articulates, is that “winning slowly on climate is just another way of losing.” Politics may be all about compromise, but there is no bargaining with the laws of nature, and by all indicators, nature is now telling us something much more fierce.
In the face of a civilizational threat, real leaders don’t seek to bargain with the laws of nature. They are forthright with the public about the crisis and rally us to the task at hand. Albertans have shown ample evidence of a willingness to collectively rally in the face of crises (from wartime to wildfires to pandemics). They share a history of bringing innovation and a strong work ethic to challenges. They deserve a chance to meet this moment.
* Abacus conducted this national survey of 2,000 people between July 16 and 19, 2019. A random sample of panellists were invited to complete the survey online from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/– 2.19 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The data were weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment and region. The full public results from the poll can be found on the Abacus website here.