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Blasphemy, Alberta style! Former Liberal leader predicts disaster for oil industry

Kevin Taft and Sheila Pratt/Photo: David J. Climenhaga

It was blasphemy, Alberta style!

On September 26 at the Edmonton launch of his new book on the parlous state of Alberta, the province's oil industry and their increasingly problematic future together, former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft said something a serious politician is never supposed to admit in Alberta.

To wit, "The oilsands will need to be phased out over the next couple of decades."

But then, Taft isn't a serious politician anymore, or even a politician at all -- which gives someone in his shoes the luxury of being able to say what he thinks without having to think about re-election. In other words, it may very well be useful, but it's a fairly low-risk proposition.

So, asked former Edmonton Journal managing editor Sheila Pratt, acting on behalf of the sponsoring Parkland Institute as Taft's conversational straight man at the University of Alberta launch of Oil’s Deep State, what happens if we don't phase out the sands?

"We either do that on our terms, or it will be done for us," Taft warned.

Which was near the point in their scripted conversation that Pratt usefully reminded Dr. Taft, PhD, that as leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Alberta Legislature from 2004 to 2008, "you used to think that oilsands and the energy industry were really useful for Alberta."

He admitted: "We’ve done well from the petroleum industry in this province." But there's always a but, even if unspoken. "Now the world is changing and we need to change with it."

This will be annoying to the most fervent supporters of Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government, of course, which unlike Taft's Liberals actually faces the challenge of trying to get re-elected in a province that starts getting antsy the instant a government starts to do anything the oil industry doesn't like.

One doesn't need to wonder how the Conservative Opposition would respond. Does anyone remember the howls emitted by Alberta's conservative politicians when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the same thing in much the same words for essentially the same reasons?

Still, it's worth listening to Taft's suggestion that the NDP -- just like the Conservatives before them -- has fallen too quickly under the spell of the fossil fuel industry.

"I am convinced the New Democrats have been captured almost as much as the other political parties," Taft told his audience.

Whether or not he meant to include the Alberta Liberals in that company -- when he led them, or since -- wasn't clear. But, as Taft pointed out, it would be a problem for any political party coming into the job of running a province with a one-note economy and governmental institutions heavily influenced by the industry.

"When the NDP stepped into government, they were surrounded by a captive state already," he said. "Their closest advisors, the most senior civil servants, the regulators and so on, were all, essentially, allies of the industry."

He cited the swiftly concluded royalty review and the Notley Government's "trashing" of the Leap Manifesto during the 2016 national NDP convention as evidence -- an assessment that may not be entirely fair, given the economic and political situation they faced.

Still, Taft differentiated between "a captive state," as in Alberta, and "a petrostate," as in Saudi Arabia, because at least in Alberta -- despite the degree of domination by the industry and its minions -- we still have lingering democratic institutions. "The thing about a captive state is there's a chance we can still set it free… But it's going to be a tough fight," Taft argued.

I counted six times in his formal remarks where Taft made the point that Alberta is going to have to manage the decline of the oilsands, or have it thrust upon us.

So, what's that going to look like?

"Well, one change is that demand for our product’s going to start to soften, I believe. Which means that price will stay low. The provincial books will become harder and harder to balance," Taft said.

"I do not expect the jobs that are being lost in the industry to be regained … you'll see more job loss," he went on. "And that will fuel a political crisis in this province, and I think that crisis is going to land in the lap of the next government."

Taft predicted the industry will face lawsuits -- with potentially "staggering settlements" like those that have bedevilled the asbestos and tobacco industries -- and the ever-rising cost of dealing with abandoned wells.

Alberta once had the opportunity to do things like Norway has, Taft observed. "We had a chance to head in that direction, but that was rearranged." The best hope now, he concluded, "is that the taxpayer doesn’t end up bearing the liability."

"I do not myself believe there are right-wing solutions to the challenges that Alberta faces, so the next hard-right government, if they do win, is going to have a really tough time."

The Calgary launch of Oil's Deep State: How the petroleum industry undermines democracy and stops action on global warming -- in Alberta and Ottawa, published by Lorimer, took place on September 29 at Mount Royal University.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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