OPINION | Alberta 'war room' selling positive oilpatch pitches, but investors aren't buying

Alberta's government-sponsored "war room" apparently failed to make an impression on Norway's $1-trillion US sovereign wealth fund, which announced this week it had divested its investments in four Canadian energy companies.

Reaction from Premier Jason Kenney was swift, loud and predictable

One of the world's largest investment funds says it will exclude four Canadian oilsands producers after concluding they produce unacceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Well, so much for Alberta's War Room setting the record straight.

Or for telling Alberta's story to the world.

Or whatever it is the War Room (a.k.a. the Canadian Energy Centre) is supposed to do.

The government-sponsored war room apparently failed to make an impression on Norway's $1-trillion US sovereign wealth fund that announced this week it had divested its investments in four Canadian energy companies.

The Norwegian state-owned fund has blacklisted Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy and Imperial Oil because of "acts or omissions that on an aggregate company level lead to unacceptable greenhouse gas emissions."

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The reaction from Alberta was swift, loud and predictable.

"To be blunt, I find that incredibly hypocritical," Premier Jason Kenney said during a phone-in news conference on Wednesday. "That entire sovereign fund owes its genesis to oil revenues coming from the North Sea reserves of Norway. It's the pot calling the kettle black."

Well, not exactly. While it's true that Norway's sovereign fund gets its money from oil revenue, the Norwegian pot isn't nearly as black as the Alberta kettle.

Fund is worth $1 trillion

Norway's per capita emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, is about 9.5 tonnes per year, according to 2018 figures. In Canada, we're closer to 22 tonnes per person. And in Alberta, the per capita level of emissions is closer to 65 tonnes. (If the Wexiteers fulfilled their dream of an independent country, Albertistan would be one of the highest emitting countries, per capita, in the world.)

Of course, playing in the background here is another comparison between Alberta and Norway: the size of our sovereign funds. Norway's 30-year-old fund, built by fossil fuel revenue and allowed to grow unmolested over time, is worth $1 trillion US. Alberta's 44-year-old Heritage Savings Trust Fund, pillaged and starved over the years, is worth about $18 billion Cdn.

The cry from Kenney and oil companies is that we're doing better when it comes to reducing our emissions from the oilsands. And we are, but only when it comes to reducing the intensity of emissions per barrel of oil produced. The trouble is, we're producing more barrels.

It'd be like your neighbour putting out 20 filled-to-the-brim cans of garbage each week for pick up. After getting side-eyed by the neighbours, he promises to only put out half-filled cans next time. But the next garbage pick-up day, he puts out 50 half-filled cans.

The intensity of the garbage is less per can, but the overall garbage has increased.

One of Alberta's problems is that it's a Johnny-come-lately to the environmental table. Twenty years ago, then-premier Ralph Klein joked about climate change, blaming it on "dinosaur farts." Ten years ago, then-premier Ed Stelmach tried to sweep Alberta's emissions problem under the carpet via carbon capture and sequestration experiments that failed to live up to the hype.

All the while, Alberta's emissions grew as its credibility on the environment shrank.

The NDP government of Rachel Notley acknowledged the problem and introduced a carbon tax but ran into a recession and Kenney's successful scrap-the-tax rhetoric.

Fighting back with bluster

Now, Kenney's response to criticism of the oil industry in general, and his government's environmental policies in particular, is to bluster.

When Moody's Investors Services downgraded Alberta's credit rating in December because of concern over environmental risks, Kenney attacked Moody's as "buying into the political agenda emanating from Europe, which is trying to stigmatize development of hydrocarbon energy. And I just think they are completely, factually wrong."

When a Calgary reporter asked Kenney two weeks ago if he had thought about a transition away from fossil fuels, Kenney got personal: "That kind of question, in the middle of an economic crisis from a Calgary-based media outlet really, frankly, throws me for a loop."

I suppose this is part of Kenney's "Fight Back" strategy, which seems to consist of browbeating critics, whether it's a reporter asking a pointed question or a credit rating issuing a downgrade.

It's a strategy that is no doubt popular with Kenney's supporters but it's a strategy that doesn't seem to be particularly effective.

Climate change and investors

The federal government is taking a different tack.

Rather than shake his fists at the clouds, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Norway's announcement this week a wake-up call.

"We've seen investors around the world looking at the risks associated with climate change as an integral part of investment decisions they make," Trudeau said on Wednesday. "That is why it is so important for Canada to continue to move forward on fighting climate change and reduce our emissions in all sectors."

In that vein, the federal government's aid package announced this week to give multimillion-dollar bridge loans to large employers included a condition that the companies publish information each year on "how their future operations will support environmental sustainability and national climate goals."

Trudeau realizes the world is taking climate change more seriously, and that includes other fossil fuel producing jurisdictions such as Norway.

The federal government is taking a more nuanced and sophisticated approach than Alberta.

Yelling might get people's attention; it likely won't get their respect.

Norwegian officials would have done their homework before blacklisting the Canadian energy companies.

They might not have read the War Room's webpage, of course.

But then again, given how the Canadian Energy Centre has been such a hot mess, they probably did.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.