The crisis in Alberta should be top of the first ministers' agenda

"It is very careless politics, feeding forces of friction between provinces, confirming suspicions that Central Canadian mandarins are not really all that convinced that this is a national problem at all,” Rex Murphy says of the federal reaction to Alberta’s crisis.

'We bought the damn pipeline' says absolutely nothing about a real determination to get new ones built

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is dealing with a crisis and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's heart isn't in helping out, says Rex Murphy. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press, CBC, Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Let me clear away a little brush before getting to Premier Rachel Notley's televised address from last week, the first ministers conference and the continuing outrageous neglect of Alberta's energy industry.

The federal Liberals — having dug, so enthusiastically, the pit they're in on Alberta and energy — have been offering with great frequency a most curious cartload of colourful nonsense about their proven concern for the Alberta energy industry and its workers.

They variously simper: "What do you mean the Liberal government doesn't care? We bought the Kinder Morgan pipeline and spent $4.5 billion to do it."

That's the last-line-of-defence talking point these days whenever some sad puppet has to show up on one of those infinite and infinitely dreary political panels.

What, in the current context, is it even supposed to mean?

Not because they wanted to

They didn't buy it because they wanted to. They didn't buy it to support Alberta oil getting to markets.

They bought it because their inaction, their hyper-regulation, their standing by while Green zealots conducted international campaigns against the oilsands, their non-leadership when court cases multiplied, after protests blocked and impeded Kinder Morgan's efforts to start the new pipeline.

They bought it because all of these factors and because, after seven years and a billion dollars trying to get just one "twin" pipeline built, Kinder Morgan cried out in pain — "Enough! Canada doesn't want a pipeline for Alberta. We give up. We're beaten. We're going." Then, our Alberta-caressing federal government steps in and buys the one already built!

The marijuana legislation came just in time. Break out the joints. Everyone needs to feel a little numb.

If the government had really backed Kinder Morgan — had stood up early on for the national interest in pursuing this project — the need to buy it would never have arisen in the first place.

That's why the line they are using today, the "Hey, we bought the pipeline, that shows how serious about the Alberta crisis we are" is the cheapest fudge of a hollow talking point.

All this is part of the melancholy backdrop that brought Premier Notley to the television screen, and her remarkable decision to cut production in the peak moment of the greatest challenge to the oil industry since the 1980s.

A cynical scam

Notley had, foolishly it turns out, sought co-operation with the Green-Liberal government in Ottawa — buying into Justin Trudeau's witless, made-up notion of social licence.  

She signed on to the Trudeau-McKenna soft sell, brought in the carbon (read energy) tax — and predictably it all blew up in her political face.

Alberta genuflected to the global warming ideologues, and they, once the homage had been received, the Climate Crusaders, T and M, left her high and dry.

It was a cynical scam from the very beginning. Invoked in the national interest.

And even now, when the Liberals have finally started using that phrase on Alberta getting its oil to foreign markets, it sounds rote and flat.

When Mr. Trudeau is genuinely committed something, everyone knows it. Catch him speaking at some Women of Influence conference, at one of those dread WE Days, or sending $50-million tweets to a third-string, late-night, half-funny man. You can tell he's in his element. Sense the passion.

But on Alberta oil and gas, price differentials, pipelines? On these he speaks in the unforgettable accent of all teenagers when they heard there was "more homework."

Practically unthinkable

The measurement of the prime minister's "I know it's a crisis here in Alberta" came mere days after, last Sunday night, when Premier Notley did the practically unthinkable. Even Jason Kenney was on side with the move — equally unthinkable in anything like normal times.

Notley pledged to keep a portion of Alberta oil and gas in the ground. She did it as a move to keep from virtually giving Canadian oil away — at a huge differential.

And then, O Irony!

Three days after her remarkable address (joined by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe) she had to send off a letter to this same prime minister asking — this is incredible — why the "crisis in Alberta" was not even listed on the agenda of the first ministers conference.

Not. Even. On. The. Agenda.

Were energy an Ontario industry, even talking about windmills or being caught warming soup on a solar panel would be a criminal offence. And were Ontario the centre of an oil price crisis, the Trudeau government would be pushing the UN security council to have it debated. But it's an Albertan one, so it wasn't even on the agenda.

All kinds of bitterly delicious ironies surround the issue.

One of my favourites is that the so-called carbon tax (it's a tax on energy products, not an atmospheric gas), at $30 a tonne, is more than double what a barrel of Alberta oil was getting on the U.S. market in November.

Another is that the Alberta government has seriously announced that it is going to start its own railway (80 locomotives and 7,000 rail cars) if that's what it takes to get oil to market. Maybe the Last Spike was a bit of premature labelling. (Pierre Berton rotates in his crypt.)

Third irony. How can the Trudeau government possibly continue its mad tax on energy when the producing province is in such a bind that it has to impose a cut on production with Canadian oil selling at roughly the cost of a mediocre fish and chips back home in Newfoundland, and fish and chips don't even throw off any heat?

Alberta energy should be the top item on the agenda.

The carbon-energy tax itself — most precisely its cancellation 'til Alberta has pipelines and its oil is moving to markets other than the U.S. — should be the first objective of the meeting. After Premier Notley's speech it is inconceivable that it was not the only item.

For carbon taxes are not only a primary provincial and federal concern here in Canada, but they are (in very large part) roiling political waters internationally.

From Paris to Calgary

Is anyone in the PMO paying any attention to Paris in the last three weeks?

The government of France, under a charismatic, handsome, stylishly accoutered leader, recently imposed a tax on fuel, for purposes identical to those of Canada on energy.

It did so (the phrasing is so familiar), "to curtail the use of oil," and provide a fund for "green energy innovation."

The working classes of France exploded in near revolt. The most recent demonstration saw 300,000 people take to its venerable avenues over what they saw an "outrageous demand" on poor people.

Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher fuel prices, run from police during riots on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France, on Nov. 24, 2018. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

French President Emmanuel​ Macron, despite early defiance of the demonstrators, quickly caved.

He backed off like a kitten from a pit bull, cancelled the "carbon tax," (he says "suspended" but that's typical politician face-saving).

Alberta is not France, and Calgary is not Paris.

That still shouldn't stop the bright green minds in our PMO from paying just a little attention to events in Europe and entertaining — entertaining — the thought that maybe they too might be suffering from a little misread. A disjunction between their high-sounding eco-ambitions, their intimate embrace of the anti-energy forces, and the feelings of most ordinary people on this subject.  

Let me underline the big point — if in the heart of global Europe, where so many IPCC conferences are held, and in Paris, where the famous Paris Accord was given birth, there is a full-scale populist revolt on the very idea of carbon taxes, does that not, even slightly, suggest it might be time to review imposing by fiat the same tax on all Canada? And, most especially, Alberta?

Events of the last while in Canada will not see the wild reaction currently happening in France. But Ottawa's chill, reluctant, tepid response to the state of affairs out West has its own perils.

It is very careless politics, feeding forces of friction between provinces, confirming suspicions that Central Canadian mandarins are not really all that convinced that this is a national problem, at all. It's just Alberta.

What the PM should do

A sensible government, a serious government would not have had the Alberta crisis brew the way it has.

It would have had a prime minister spending days out West, talking not to Chambers of Commerce, but meeting with thousands of laid-off workers, surveying the smaller businesses hurt or failing.

A prime minister visiting Fort McMurray and other communities — getting a real sense of what a part of the Confederation he leads, and the people living there, are experiencing. How they rightly feel shoved off to the side in one of their worst moments, and how they feel the scales are currently weighted in favour of ideological alarmism rather than jobs.

So, "we bought the damn pipeline" says absolutely nothing about a real determination to get new ones built.

The carbon tax should be abandoned as ill-timed and useless. Federal policies on global warming and energy should be tested, not by the standards of Suzuki and Greenpeace, but by the concept of national interest. If they please the former, it is an axiom they nullify the latter.

And — surely even people in Ottawa know that having imposed NEP1 was unfortunate, but to give birth to a second NEP is an act of wanton political irresponsibility.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Rex Murphy


Rex Murphy was born and raised in St. John's, where he graduated from Memorial University. In 1968, Murphy, a Rhodes Scholar, went to Oxford University (along with former U.S. president Bill Clinton). Back in Newfoundland, he was soon established as a quick-witted and accomplished writer, broadcaster and teacher. He was the long-time host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup. Murphy has given paid talks to energy companies.