Gondek vs. Kenney: Competing visions of Alberta's energy future

Most Albertans support energy transition, but a minority hold out hope for a future based on oil and gas. Changing their minds won’t be easy, according to political scientists Melanee Thomas and Lori Thorlakson.

Changing the minds of the minority of Albertans opposed to moving away from oil and gas won't be easy

Jyoti Gondek speaks to the media after being sworn in as the new mayor of Calgary in October 2021. Gondek offers one vision for Alberta’s energy future. Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party offer a competing view, write Melanee Thomas and Lori Thorlakson. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by political scientists Melanee Thomas and Lori Thorlakson. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In her recent editorial board meeting with CBC News, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek conceded that energy transition "sometimes comes with a lot of pain and angst."

It also comes with a lot of politics in oil-rich Alberta. 

Gondek offers one vision for Alberta's energy future. Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party (UCP) offer a competing view. 

Gondek's sights are set on decarbonizing Calgary's economy, touting the city's new clean energy tech accelerator aimed at helping bring big oil and gas companies together with researchers, entrepreneurs and academics working to decarbonize the industry. 

Gondek ruffled some feathers before she even became mayor for saying that Calgary needed to "move past" a focus on fossil fuels as the only form of energy production.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, on the other hand, is intent on getting Alberta's economy cooking with oil and gas again. Kenney's rather retro vision champions fossil fuels and their potential economic prosperity.

As an oil and gas booster, Kenney has vowed  to "vigorously defend the economic interests of Alberta, including the right to develop our own natural resources," in response to the federal government's formal announcement last November to cap oil and gas emissions.

What are we to make of politicians with such diametrically opposed views? Our research published this year and last suggests more Albertans support Gondek's vision of an energy transition than Kenney's vision of more of the same. 

And Gondek has some powerful new allies that have traditionally had Kenney's back.

New mayor, new allies 

The new mayor may have raised some hackles – including Premier Kenney's – when her first order of business was to declare a climate emergency in the oil and gas capital of Canada.

But not unlike the Alberta NDP following the 2015 provincial election, Gondek cleverly aligns her messaging about energy transition with the big oil companies headquartered in Calgary.

Last summer, the biggest players in Alberta's oil sands – Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy – pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their operations to net-zero by 2050. 

Gondek consistently echoes big oil's Pathways to Net Zero. Everything she's saying has already been said by industry.

Gondek's message is future-focused, telling CBC's editorial board last week "we just sort of stayed stuck telling the story of oil and gas from a historic perspective." 

"I'm pretty happy to be pulling it forward and talking about how we're leaders in that [energy] transformation," she added.

It's a message that resonates with most Albertans. 

Support for energy transition 

Our ongoing research shows that a clear majority of Albertans want to move away from fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal. CBC News' own polling in 2020 similarly found that almost 80 per cent of Albertans think the oil and gas-rich province should transition toward more renewable energy. 

Unsurprisingly, we found that concern about climate change was the biggest predictor of support for moving away from fossil fuels towards more renewable energy.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is intent on getting Alberta’s economy cooking with oil and gas again. Albertans who place their hopes for the province's future in oil and gas likely won’t change their minds until conservative politicians stop talking down energy transition as a threat, according to Melanee Thomas and Lori Thorlakson. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Our research also shows what drives the Albertans who oppose an energy transition. The strongest opposition comes from people with high hopes for the future of Alberta's oil and gas. Interestingly, this hope in the future of oil and gas is independent of employment in the industry.

Our study also suggests that it may be hard to change the minds of those committed to a future based on oil and gas. When this group heard objective information about the economic benefits of moving towards renewable sources of energy, their opinions didn't noticeably shift compared to others who didn't receive any information. 

This tells us the minority that holds on to these hopes is likely to remain stubbornly committed to oil and gas, especially if leaders like Kenney continue to frame energy transition as a threat.

Cooking up opinions

What politicians say acts like "recipes" for the public to "cook up their opinions" about public policy, including energy transition. 

While industry experts predict many oil and gas firms will use current windfall prices to pay for energy transition, climate change commitments, and greener jobs, Kenney has doubled down on oil and gas, mixing pipelines and petroleum in hopes of producing prosperity

Our research suggests that this message does not resonate with most Albertans. But for some, Kenney's message may feel a lot like comfort food, especially for key parts of the premier's constituency: UCP supporters, economic conservatives, social conservatives and, especially, those with high hopes in the future dominance of oil and gas. 

Changing these minds won't be easy.

Altering minds about energy transition

Albertans who place their hopes for the province's future in oil and gas likely won't change their minds until some business leaders and especially conservative politicians stop talking down energy transition as a threat, and start talking up the economic benefits of converting to renewable energy.

We don't yet know what will happen when narratives about energy transition from business leaders run contrary to what conservative politicians say about it, and what influence that will have on public opinion amongst those Albertans holding out hope for the province's oil and gas industry. But there is no doubt we are hearing more of these views from business. 

Mark Carney, the former head of both the Bank of England and Bank of Canada, and current UN special envoy on climate action and finance, offers dire warnings of the climate crisis triggering another economic crisis, stressing that companies and industries that ignore climate change risk going bankrupt.

As part of the recent United Nation's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Carney unveiled  a $130 trillion US private sector effort to help the world get to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Reinventing Calgary

Calgary's new mayor wisely hopes to attract a lot of that money to her city. Gondek also explicitly frames her support for climate change action as an effort that lines up with the oil and gas industry's promise to cut greenhouse gases. 

And as she told the CBC News' editorial board last week, Calgary needs to reinvent itself as the energy transition capital. 

"Our reputation can't be what we did in the past. It needs to be what we're doing into the future and why you should come here to locate your family and your business."

Most Albertans will likely cheer these efforts. 

Convincing the minority of Albertans opposed to moving away from oil and gas that energy transition is a net positive for the province won't be easy. The premier could probably do it if he chose to. But changing that one mind — Jason Kenney's — may prove more difficult than changing the minds of Albertans aligned with the premier's narrative that Alberta's "long-term prosperity" will be fueled by oil and gas.

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Melanee Thomas is a political scientist at the University of Calgary. Her work, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund at UCalgary, explores public and elite attitudes about energy transition. Lori Thorlakson is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her research, funded by the Future Energy Systems program at the University of Alberta, explores decarbonization backlash.


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