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Elizabeth May talks fossil fuels, pipelines and selling out the climate in Alberta

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Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May at Edmonton's The King's University on Friday, March 8, 2019 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

What would have Elizabeth May have done in Rachel Notley's shoes? 

The leader of the Green Party of Canada says she would have summoned up the memory of Peter Lougheed, founder of Alberta's 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, but not the way the province's first NDP premier has.

"I think that Albertans are reasonable," May said during a short, 15-minute interview before she gave a talk with students and faculty at The King's University in Edmonton Friday. "If you present the facts, and say, 'Look, we had this plan from Peter Lougheed, let's revisit it," she argued, Albertans and other Canadians could find common ground. 

Notley took a different road, with which the member of Parliament for Saanich and the Islands disagrees profoundly, describing Alberta's approach "an abdication of responsibility."

To the right of Ralph Klein on oil?

"If I had been her adviser, and I certainly tried to communicate this to her, given the political landscape, I would have sought out reclaiming the moral high ground of Peter Lougheed," May told me. "I would have distanced myself from trying to be to the right of Ralph Klein on oil and gas, which is where I think she's placed herself."

Premier Notley, in the Green Party leader's view, should have asked Albertans to look back at what Lougheed advised, to wit, developing processing infrastructure in Alberta. "Let's look at taking a business case to the rest of Canada that we'd like to see them stop importing all foreign oil, and use Canadian product," she said.

She recalled how, the only time she met Alberta's premier, she told her: "You should brand it Fort Mac Strong and sell it across Canada as a branded Alberta product. And I don't think there's a Canadian who wouldn't prefer, as long as we are using fossil fuels, to use Fort Mac Strong than Saudi or Nigerian."

No expansion of the oilsands

"We could say, well, on a declining basis, in exchange for no expansion of the oil sands, this is a good way to go forward. And I think she could have sold that." But "it's too late now," May lamented. 

Well, maybe Albertans would have listened, maybe not. But they certainly deserve to hear what May has to say. She may only lead a Parliamentary caucus of one, but she speaks for many more Canadians -- leastways, outside Alberta, and this debate isn't going away. 

So it should concern Albertans that May's two days in our province -- Thursday in Calgary and Friday in Edmonton, with a long bus ride in between because that was the lowest-carbon travel option -- were all but ignored by mainstream media. This has certainly not been the case elsewhere on her cross-Canada "community matters tour."

In Alberta May was accompanied by Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes, leader of the provincial Green Party. And, yes, despite heavy snow last Friday, they showed up at the King's campus in a small electric car. 

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Like most serious environmentalists, May puts carbon emissions and climate change at the heart of the debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, although she is highly critical of economic arguments for the project. 

Neither the Alberta NDP nor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals really have a carbon reduction plan, she asserted. "She has a carbon expansion policy," May said of Premier Notley. "The goal of the Alberta government is to increase greenhouse gases. She wants to go to 100 megatonnes of carbon a year, from 70 megatonnes of carbon a year."

"The cap is way above where we are right now, and we're in a climate emergency," she stated. "We can't afford to expand greenhouse gases!"

But what about other aspects of Alberta's carbon reduction plan? "Well, 'We're going to go off coal for Alberta's electricity,'" she said, paraphrasing part of the Alberta government's position. "Which would be fantastic if we were going to 100 per cent renewables. But she wants to go to fracked natural gas, burned in the same plants that were once burning coal. Which means it will be inefficient. … So, in the end, there won't be much reduction."

Selling out the climate? 

"To me it was a political trade-off, but not one that was relevant to climate science," May said. "That's a condemnation of both Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley for being willing to sell out climate in the interests of a papered-over political win."

As for the economic case made by the two governments for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, May was scornful. "The National Energy Board … said that on the list of issues (it) was supposed to investigate during this hearing, jobs and the economy weren't included. Then how on earth can it be that the National Energy Board tells the Trudeau administration, as they did in the first instance and now the second instance, 'We've looked at all these harms that will occur, but the benefits for the economy outweigh the harms'?"

'I'm very happy if I can fight the … pipeline solely on the basis of economics, because it loses on the economics," she stated. 

A 'targeted attack' on the people of B.C.

May is angered by the Alberta NDP's $23-million national advertising campaign. "Rachel Notley's ad campaign, which we now know from access to information requests was premised on the idea of getting people to be angry at B.C., it was a very targeted attack at the people of British Columbia and our government."

She praised B.C.'s NDP premier, John Horgan, for not responding in kind. But, she added, "I really regret that he hasn't taken on the lies in the ad campaign, clearly, so that people can see that they're lies."

Did she have an example of a lie? Consider the claim Canada is, or at least was, losing $80 million a day because of the price differential between Alberta crude and Texas oil. "That's not true! And it doesn't take more than 15 minutes of Google searches for economists who've crunched the numbers to know that isn't true." Claims the pipeline expansion will generate permanent jobs? She calls them "bogus." 

Faint sympathy for Rachel Notley

So does May have any sympathy for Premier Notley's political predicament? "Yes. But I think she'd done the absolutely worst thing for her own self, strategically. I don't think the NDP can win an election in Alberta by being more pro-oil than Jason Kenney. It's a political miscalculation." She continued, with a certain tone: "Do I feel sorry for her? Sure. I'm a charitable person. But she's done something that is essentially unforgivable in that she is fighting, hard, to eliminate a viable future for our children. And that is not acceptable. She has to know better."

Opponents of the NDP will take May's comments as more evidence the NDP's efforts to win "social license" for expansion of Alberta's oil industry have failed. As has been said here before, though, the opposite is probably true. 

But as angry rhetoric toward other parts of Canada escalates among both Alberta New Democrats and their Conservative challengers, this inter-provincial dispute may get harder, not easier, to resolve. May characterized Notley's remarks about British Columbia as "vicious" and "divisive." 

"Of course she does better things on the social justice side of the ledger for Albertans," May observed. "But on climate change, she's led the charge toward extinction. And it's not a good record."

And don't count on this approach to pipeline building ever being effective on the West Coast, the Green leader added. "Opposition in British Columbia isn't going away." 

Greens in the next Parliament

Nor is the Green Party of Canada, she vowed. Indeed, with a little vote-splitting from Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada, the Greens could end up able "to exercise a balance of responsibility in Parliament," she mused. 

"We're going to have lots of seats," she predicted. "I'm more than happy to work with New Democrats, or Liberals, or responsible Conservatives. Wherever we find people who want to think about the issues, and come to a consensus of what do we need to do now really."

"Let's take this seriously and find the solutions that advance the interests of Albertans, and the interests of British Columbians, and of people from Ontario," she concludes. "We're a country, not warring factions."

Click here to read a transcript of the audio recording of the interview, which I have edited lightly to eliminate pauses and repetitions. DJC

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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