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Alberta's schemes to improve image of oil industry unlikely to succeed

Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel, back in the days he was a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel got a couple of things right about Jason Kenney's plan to establish a "war room" in the Ministry of Energy to pump out belligerent propaganda attacking environmentalists, other governments and private citizens who fail to support Alberta's wishes for endless oilsands expansion with sufficient enthusiasm.

The United Conservative Party's notion of opening a Ministry of Truth is indeed juvenile, as Mandel proclaimed on New Year's Eve. It also fundamentally misinterprets the way major oil companies are likely to want to position the industry in the difficult years Alberta faces in the future.

Accordingly, it is unlikely to achieve its presumed goal of making outsiders more sympathetic to Alberta's economic needs, or even to be particularly effective bullying them to do what we want.

That said, Mandel's Big Idea that so entranced the Calgary Herald isn't much different. The Alberta Party leader proposes a kinder, gentler version of Kenney's "Minitrue" to woo a little more and bully a little less.

That's better, I guess, but it's not likely to be much more effective for a number of reasons, above all the increasingly hard-to-deny reality of global climate change.

There's also Alberta's loudly proclaimed self-image as the victim of Confederation while benefitting more from the country's constitutional set-up than any other province except perhaps Quebec -- about which we complain bitterly and unremittingly. Surely other Canadians are growing impatient with this permanent pity party.

What's more, the prime minister has certainly contributed to Alberta's problems -- but not necessarily the PM that holds office right now. Alberta's problems were being made worse before Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals came to power in the fall of 2015, or for that matter before Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP won a majority in the spring of that year.

As Chris Sorenson wrote in Maclean's magazine back in January 2015, then-PM Stephen Harper was Big Oil's worst enemy thanks to "his relentless oil and gas boosterism."

"It's not like Harper needed to transform Canada into a granola-crunching utopia to keep the oilsands out of the international spotlight," Sorenson observed. "He just needed to do something."

Quoting David Anderson, federal environment minister under prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, the article describes how Harper allowed oilsands development "to become a poster child for climate change" just as the Obama administration and much of the rest of the world were starting to get worried about the state of the planet.

Moreover, Alberta also can't be sure the process required to squeeze bitumen out of the province's oilsands will never matter to end users, Anderson observed. "We can't assume that oil is going to be a fungible commodity on the world market as it has in the past. There will be clean oil and dirty oil."

Instead of emulating Norway and calling for a carbon tax that would have made it easy for a worried world to love Canadian oil, Harper bragged we were an oil superpower that could do whatever it wanted, telling a reluctant U.S. President Barack Obama he wouldn't take no for an answer on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Everything seemed to change later in 2015, with the election of Liberals in Ottawa and New Democrats in Edmonton. Then everything seemed to change again in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, cheered by Canadian Conservatives, in the States.

But the fundamentals of the international market for oil and the realities that impact it haven't really changed much at all. And Trump will soon be gone from the White House, quite possibly very soon. Which brings us back to Alberta's propaganda plans.

Despite a modest difference in tone, there's not much light at all between the supposedly more moderate Alberta Party headed by Mandel and the unblushingly immoderate UCP headed by Kenney when it comes to the plan for a propaganda ministry.

And there's precious little light between either conservative party and Premier Rachel Notley's NDP, which is already taking a similar approach without bothering to set up an additional layer of bureaucracy -- which is, it could be argued, a moderately more conservative approach than that of the other two if you happen to be one of those who disparage Big Government.

As has been said in this space before, surely the only thing standing between Notley's NDP and an easy re-election victory in Alberta is the name of her party.

The seeds of foreign and domestic distrust for Alberta's claims it operates the world's most ethical and environmentally friendly oil industry were sown by Harper, ably assisted by Kenney, then his lieutenant in Ottawa.

Screaming at people who believe there must be a cap on oilsands production is unlikely to do anything but reinforce their belief. Threatening them will make it worse. A slick pitch like that proposed by Mandel may be better, but not all that much.

Going slow on promised environmental measures -- as suggested by Premier Notley's withdrawal of support for Trudeau's climate plan because the Trans Mountain Pipeline isn't being expanded fast enough -- won't help much either.

Even The Economist, the international magazine for people who wish they were rich, argues Alberta's intransigence is not in its own interest when worldwide pressure to decarbonize is bound to increase.

In other words, the high priests of the Almighty Market declare in their house organ "eventually Alberta will have to reduce its dependence on oil."

It's easier now, they noted, for politicians like Notley and Kenney (and his kinder, gentler doppelganger Mandel) to blame Liberals in Ottawa, citizens in British Columbia and Quebec, and environmental groups in Canada and the United States, "than to admit that the oil industry and the province are suffering from self-inflicted wounds."

"But the reluctance even to face the need for change is worrying."

That's not quite fair to the NDP, which has given some thought to economic diversification.

But the best choice would be for Alberta to work hammer and tong to create what the environmental fringe of the resurgent Democrats south of the Medicine Line calls a "Green New Deal." In other words, it's time for governments to pick some economic winners instead of doubling down on an industry that increasingly looks like a loser over the long term.

But how likely is that in the Alberta of 2019? Sad to say, not very.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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