OPINION | Kenney continues fight for oilsands even as world turns away
End of spring legislature marked by private groups blacklisting, writing off oilsands
Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.
When the spring sitting of the Alberta legislature ended Wednesday morning, Premier Jason Kenney wanted to wrap things up on a positive note.
But a major oilsands company, Total, apparently didn't get the memo.
As Kenney proudly itemized the government's achievements in the marathon session "to get Albertans back to work," Total announced more sobering news.
The French-based energy company declared it is writing off $9.3-billion worth of oilsands assets in Alberta. Translation: We don't have much faith in the future of the oilsands.
Total determined that the COVID-19 pandemic and the global push to reduce carbon emissions have overturned assumptions about the long-term viability of some oilsands assets.
Translation: Oh boy, the price of oil isn't going to rebound. Ready the lifeboats; prepare to abandon ship.
This is not the news Kenney wanted to hear Wednesday as he spent an hour pumping up the spring legislative sitting during which the government, among other things, lowered the corporate tax rate, increased private delivery of publicly funded health care, cut red tape, and fast-tracked approval of energy projects.
"As Albertans work together to stop the spread of COVID-19, our government is working to get our economy back on track with Alberta's Recovery Plan," said Kenney.
NDP leader Rachel Notley had her own way of summing up the spring sitting: "Jason Kenney and the UCP used the cover of the pandemic to ram through their extreme agenda of American-style health care and American-style labour laws, while handing over more than $4.7 billion to profitable corporations."
Welcome to Alberta politics 2020 where our two leading parties couldn't agree on the time of day in an atomic clock factory.
Reality met with rhetoric
But more troubling for Kenney perhaps is that an increasing number of non-political players don't seem to agree with him.
As Kenney continues to promote the oilsands not just in word but in deed — including a $1.5-billion cash-up-front stake in the Keystone XL pipeline project — others are headed in the other direction.
Just two days before Total announced its waning confidence in the long-term future of the oilsands, the Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank said it was joining a list of European financial companies blacklisting new oilsands projects for environmental reasons.
Kenney responded by figuratively shaking his fist at the "misinformed campaign from European financial institutions."
"We will be demanding that Deutsche Bank share with us the factual basis upon which these decisions were made," said a blustering Kenney, as if the bank hadn't thought the decision through.
This is part of the Kenney government's "Fight Back" strategy; a strategy that, by the way, also gave us the embarrassment of the Canadian Energy Centre "war room" and the behind-schedule-and-over-budget secretive "public inquiry" into enemies of the oil industry.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage displayed the same pugilistic stance in her response to Total's announcement.
"This highly-hypocritical decision comes at a time where international energy companies should, in fact, be increasing their investment in Alberta, rather than arbitrarily abandoning a source of a stable, reliable, supply of energy," wrote Savage in a news release. You could almost hear the harrumph.
Savage and Kenney are trying to protect Alberta's economy and jobs. That's understandable and laudable. But they are shaking their fists at the inevitable pace of change instead of embracing the opportunities.
Rather than position Alberta as an energy leader in the 21st Century, they are trying to get back to the 20th.
They are even championing more coal mines. And that, not surprisingly, suffered a blow this week. On Thursday, the federal government announced it will review a major expansion of the Vista thermal-coal mine in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Hinton.
Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson had originally said he wouldn't get involved but because of public concerns he has concluded the project "may result in adverse effects of greater magnitude to those previously considered."
Translation: As the prime minister said in 2017, coal is the 'dirtiest of all fossil fuels,' and we're not keen on mining more thermal coal in Canada even if it is destined for Asia.
The world is trying to send Kenney a message about the long-term future of Alberta's fossil fuel industries.
Perhaps it's time for Kenney to tone down the bluster, turn off the rhetoric, and listen.