Albertans are buckling up for a throwdown over pipelines, oilsands and Trans Mountain

"It is going to get a lot more difficult politically and otherwise to sideline those who support Alberta oil, and the days of semi-apology for even being in the oil industry are done." — Rex Murphy, after a visit to Fort McMurray.

The Alberta attitude and the reluctance to whine

The Alberta oil industry is a major source of employment and plays a significant role in the province's economy. (Norm Betts/Bloomberg News)

What has been the lesson from the latest turn in the saga of the Trans Mountain pipeline? What effects has the most recent court decision putting what it deemed a "stall" on its construction had? In Alberta, and more particularly in Fort McMurray? 

The answer for me — after a few days in Fort McMurray and speaking at an oil conference that included industry delegates, suppliers, corporate players and First Nations — came with more than a touch of surprise.

(Note well: There's a whole and separate story involving First Nations enterprise, investment and even potential ownership in the oil industry, vastly at odds with the conventional narrative of First Nations protest, and that deserves a treatment all to itself another day.)

What I found from conversation, some panels, informal meetups and simply from the mood of the place (just two years after The Fire) was an unusual spirit of buoyancy, forward outlook — this despite the dread findings on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

An aerial view of downtown Fort McMurray in March 2018. (David Thurton/CBC)

This was in addition to the absolutely predictable amazement and anger that, by that decision, once more the one pipeline outlet for an entire industry was again in a seemingly endless limbo.

I asked in the National Post recently, "How much more can Fort Mac take?" That question still stands. What I didn't realize till the visit was the fibre of resilience in Fort McMurray, and by natural extensions, Alberta itself.

In any other place

First, allow me to set the table for those outside Alberta. Let me try to put it in a frame that people outside might more directly relate to.

Imagine a province that depended on fishing for both its economy and lifestyle. I recognize this might take some stretch of the imagination, but it is possible such a province might exist in the unexplored future, or even have existed in the dim and distant past.

Add to this speculation the even more unthinkable possibility that some concentration of strange radicals, idlers and outsiders worked a pressure campaign that wanted nothing less but to put an end to the entire province's fishing economy. One that force-fed the media with scare stories and polluted all potential markets but one for its fish with a relentless negative campaign.

But "fishing is what we do," the people would cry. It's not all, but it is the main thing. Under this dreary projection, my guess is the province would go nuts.

People would claw their heads puzzling over the insanity, storm the local legislature, howl at Ottawa to get working NOW to fix matters, and boil in outrage at the busybodies who, gratuitously and recklessly, under a false flag or some ridiculous moral grandstanding, had assaulted their very economic destiny.

Perhaps this scenario seems familiar. Try it in another, a familiar and real life setting. Try it as it has been experienced and is being experienced in Alberta.

Alberta the global scapegoat

Alberta's central industry has been under concerted attack; been made the global scapegoat for the scare brand of global warming environmentalism.

It has been regulated, sued and slandered just about continuously. Access to world markets, and the market price for its product, has been opposed and denied.

Protesters gathered in Nanaimo on Aug. 22, 2018, to protest the federal government's purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Benoit Roussel/CBC)

When one, just one, pipeline remained on the table — the Trans Mountain — and after it survived more than a dozen court challenges, and after it got federal approval, even after the federal government bought it with the most fulsome pledges that now it is finally going to be built — what happens?

    A court comes down with a stop-work decision. After seven years of hearings, court cases, protests, interventions and a government takeover, it still can't even be started.

    It staggers the mind.

    The response in Alberta, and some of it I've seen myself in Fort McMurray, is a hot blend of pure incredulity (how could this happen?) and raw anger. Such I expected. But blending with the anger and amazement was another element.

    Which accounts for that "surprise" I mentioned earlier.

    A new spirit

    As said, the anger is there, the sense that in some cruel sense one major Canadian industry, and one alone — oil in Alberta — has been targeted and harassed continuously for a decade.

    But the fresh element, the one that was not to be seen earlier, is that people working at all levels have embraced the challenges in a very new spirit.

    In Fort McMurray itself, there is a surprising, even extraordinary, sense of determination not to let this decision wreck their optimism or completely crush their belief that, eventually, miraculously, the overwhelming series of setbacks that has hit the city in recent years will be put behind them.

    Many in Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta's oilsands region, were disappointed with the court decision last month to halt construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (David Thurton/ CBC)

    But to be clear, this is not to say that this latest manifestation of process-driven delay and obstruction doesn't drive almost everyone to exasperation, bewilderment and full bore anger. People are severely ticked off.

    Yet, astonishment and anger have their virtues.

    The Trans Mountain decision crystallized the obvious. It has forced the industry, communities, workers and local representatives to the knowledge that temporizing, or compromising with those who are radically opposed, gets them absolutely nowhere.

    That every compromise (social licence) is a ruse. That bending to some demands (carbon tax) only leads to more demands. That the poisonous atmosphere accumulated from years of anti-oil propaganda has leached into the prevailing mentalities of politics and the courts.

    This has stirred a new sense of resolution and defiance — a determination that from here on in, the game will be played in earnest, by both sides.

    Stand up and fight for the cause

    The decision, more than any other single event, has made it clear to its supporters that they either stand up and fight for their cause, or the relentless campaign against the oilsands will have its victory.

    It forced them to take stock, in a way they have curiously resisted up to this point, that the campaign for the oilsands must be conducted with the same intensity and full engagement as the campaign against it.

    Trans Mountain says it is taking additional measures to contain the spread, including more rapid testing, reinstating mask mandates for those in close contact and implementing increased sanitation procedures.  (CBC)

    It has made inescapably clear that there is a chain effect to relentless propaganda and that opposition can't simply be ignored or placated. It's shown the cost of the decade-long campaign against oilsands.

    It coincides with the realization, over the past two years or so, that the complacent or reluctant attitude of the industry, workers and supporters of Canada's energy section to fight a sustained attack — the reluctance to engage opponents with an equal force of counterattack — has left the field almost entirely to opponents.

    Why it's taken so long to realize that opposition to the pipelines is fundamentalist, taken so long to realize that the oilsands have been taken as the No. 1 target, the symbolic enemy of the whole global warming movement and all its variously motivated allies, is a large question.

    The Alberta attitude

    Part of it might be the stoicism of the ordinary people who work in the industry. Part of it might be the "Alberta attitude," that reluctance to "whine" so prominent in every other cultural battle these days. Part of it, too, perhaps the largest part, is it took very long to see the opposition for what it is: large, focused, well-funded, professional and careless of the damage it does to workers and the economy.

    Albertans have also realized that their presumed supporters — principally the present federal government — have been feverishly overbalanced in the famously iterated "environment and economy" equation. They deplore the fatuous fortune-cookie slogan, robotically emitted by the Climate Change Minister, that "the environment and the economy go hand in hand."

    They'll start to believe that when delegations start to arrive at the Fort Mac airport for the next Global Warming summit.

    Brace for the contest

    My general impression from a few days in Fort McMurray is that both the city and those in the industry are braced for the contest.

    Downbeat over the decision itself, but galvanized that the "game" is going to change. Clarity about what's really at stake in the contest has charged them.

    It is going to get a lot more difficult politically and otherwise to sideline those who support Alberta oil, and the days of semi-apology for even being in the oil industry are done.


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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.


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