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Abandoning 'social license' was a dumb idea for Alberta's oilpatch

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The NDP government of former Alberta premier Rachel Notley said that seeking "social license" for the province's fossil fuel industry was the way to win approval for more pipeline capacity to Canada's ocean ports.

This was true enough as far as it went, and the idea that getting such approval required environment-friendly compromises like carbon taxes and emissions caps clearly succeeded. After all, despite an iffy business case, the multi-billion-dollar Trans Mountain pipeline expansion not only got federal approval on Notley's watch, but was eventually temporarily nationalized by Ottawa to ensure construction could proceed.

Now, however, it is becoming clear that social license is not only essential to sustaining and even expanding Alberta's oilsands industry, it may be key to ensuring its survival as a viable economic activity.

If so, it wasn't very good news for the future of the oilpatch last April, when Albertans elected a government that rejects the entire concept of seeking social license, is mired in conspiracy theories about how opponents of expanding bitumen mining and processing in northern Alberta are financed, and is deeply committed to a belligerent approach to other provinces on the pipeline file.

As we poke into the entrails of last week's federal election, one thing that becomes obvious is that support in Canada for strong action on climate change is approaching a national consensus outside the Prairies.

Despite the reduction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals to minority status -- which Andrew Scheer insists means the government will soon fall, as he hangs on by his fingernails to his job as Opposition leader -- about two thirds of Canadians voted for parties that advocate a carbon tax.

Not only has support for climate action been growing among Canadian voters, it's hard to believe the trend line won't continue upward as the reality of global warming becomes more obvious in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

That being the case, Premier Jason Kenney's strategy of yelling at clouds, bullying other provinces, encouraging "Wexit" nuts, pursuing doomed constitutional challenges of the federal carbon tax with his fellow stooges in Saskatchewan and Ontario, and using his influence as a former federal cabinet minister to push the federal Conservatives to adopt the same foolish tactics, is not going to improve the industry's prospects.

Indeed, it's clear that it's slowly dawning in the boardrooms of the fossil fuel industry's largest corporations that Notley's approach wasn't such a bad idea, even if organizations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers are still prepared to act as Kenney's political storm troopers.

Alberta Conservatives keep repeating, as Kenney said yesterday while tweeting a link to a Fraser Institute screed, that "the Trans Mountain pipeline has support from a clear majority of Canadians, including British Columbians." That was true, thanks to Notley's persuasive efforts, and perhaps it still is. But has there been any recent polling on the topic since Kenney applied his reverse Midas touch to the issue -- other than the federal election, that is?

As for the hapless Scheer (now facing the possibility of losing his taxpayer-subsidized housing), he is in big trouble for foolishly acting on Kenney's view that what worked with voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan would work in other provinces too.

After Trudeau's dismal performance of the past year, the election was Scheer's to lose. Thanks in large part to his adoption of the Kenney strategy of saying to hell with social license, lose it he did.

Despite suggestions to the contrary by the Trumpist rump at Postmedia, the federal Conservatives were probably right to minimize the damage Ontario Premier Doug Ford could do by locking him in a back room for most of the federal campaign. The evidence now suggests they probably should have locked Kenney in a closet too, while they were at it.

Certainly, as my colleague Dave Cournoyer's number crunching shows, Kenney's campaigning in Ontario did Scheer little good. Only two of the 24 Conservative candidates Kenney acknowledged campaigning for in his native province won, and Conservative vote totals in 23 of the 24 ridings fell from the previous election.

Meanwhile, it appears the pre-election consensus among Conservative premiers to reject any effective action on climate change is fraying.

While Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, Kenney and Ford -- the Moe, Larry and Curly of Canadian first ministers -- pursue their constitutional challenge of Ottawa's right to impose taxes, New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs had already jumped ship and Manitoba's Brian Pallister sounds as if he's pondering it.

If Kenney is serious about helping Alberta's fossil fuel industry, he'll need to dump controversial blogger Vivian Krause like the International Association of Business Communicators just did and adopt Notley's social license strategy.

This seems unlikely just now, since by all appearances Alberta's United Conservative Party premier still has his eye on Scheer's job, and after that Trudeau's. So he won't quit attacking anything and everything Trudeau says and does any time soon.

Still, stranger things have happened. Despite all his talk, Kenney opted for a bigger deficit than the one projected by the NDP in his government's budget last week. So you can't rule a flip-flop out completely, especially if the biggest bosses of the energy industry have a frank chat with him.

Whatever else he is, Kenney's not a dummy, and sooner or later reality may sink in.

Alison Redford's back, and she wants to help!

I note with interest that Alison Redford, who back in the day was the most unpopular politician in Alberta, seems to be trying to stage a comeback.

On Friday, she was on CBC Radio, praising the UCP's destructive austerity budget to the rafters to rolled eyes all round. Yesterday, thanks to CTV, we learned she's ready and willing to "lend a hand to the Trudeau Liberals to mend the relationship between Ottawa and the West."

What could possibly go wrong?

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Mahkeo/Unsplash

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