Pipelines, pandemics and partisan infighting: Kenney trying to put troubles behind him

When the Alberta government formally announced Wednesday it was “terminating its involvement” in the defunct Keystone XL pipeline project, Albertan taxpayers had every right to be outraged at a $1.3-billion hit even though we have known for months it was coming.

Premier attempting to deflect attention away from $1.3-billion loss in KXL pipeline, writes Graham Thomson

Premier Jason Kenney provided an update on COVID-19 and the province's strategy for safely easing restrictions at a news conference in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The "Open for Summer Plan" provides a three-stage road map to lifting health restrictions and safely getting back to normal. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

We knew we were about to get run over by a bus.

We could see it coming. We even knew its number. But that didn't make it any easier or less painful when it finally hit.

Thus, when the Alberta government formally announced Wednesday it was "terminating its involvement" in the defunct Keystone XL pipeline project, Albertan taxpayers had every right to be outraged at a $1.3-billion hit even though we have known for months that the $1.3-billion hit was coming.

In fact, the bus hit us on Jan. 20, when President Joe Biden cancelled KXL's permit on his first day in office.

"This is a gut punch for the Canadian and Alberta economies," Premier Jason Kenney said at the time, realizing that the $1.3 billion the Alberta government had gambled on the pipeline project was lost.

But Kenney wasn't really admitting we'd been run over. Or, if we had, it would be painless because we could sue for damages.

He blustered about a legal fight to recoup the loss. He helped whip up support from Republican governors who have tried to challenge Biden's decision. Kenney even demanded our federal Liberal government impose trade sanctions on the U.S.

Kenney was blaming Alberta's $1.3-billion loss on Biden and on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the person responsible for putting us in the path of this bus was Kenney himself.

In March of last year, Kenney announced he was in effect buying the Keystone XL pipeline by putting up $1.5 billion immediately followed by $6 billion in loan guarantees later.

"This investment in Keystone XL is a bold move to re-take control of our province's economic destiny," said Kenney.

The "bold move" was in fact a gamble. The KXL project was so risky that nobody was willing to bankroll it — until Kenney rushed in where private-sector angels feared to tread.

A section of pipe is placed in a trench near Oyen, Alta, as part of the Keystone XL project in September, 2020. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Kenney wasn't thinking only of Alberta's future but his own. He was desperate to fulfil his election promise of jobs, pipelines and a strong economy.

So desperate that he was willing to toss aside his values as a free-enterprise conservative opposed to government involvement in the marketplace. But this wasn't about values but votes.

And by tossing aside one, he's losing the other.

Support slipping

Kenney's popularity continues to drop, according to a new Angus Reid poll released this week that indicates he has an approval rating of 31 per cent, the lowest of any premier in the country.

Not only that, the NDP has the support of 41 per cent of those surveyed, compared to 30 per cent for the UCP (with a margin of error of four percentage points).

However, most troubling for Kenney is the right-wing Wildrose Independence Party enjoys 20 per cent support.

That is a phenomenal number for the WIP and a number that must be giving Kenney nightmares. It indicates a split among the conservative vote in Alberta, the kind of split that helped the NDP win the 2015 election when conservatives were divided between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose.

Conservatives are unhappy with Kenney for failing to fulfil his election promise of more jobs, a stronger economy and a never-ending war with the federal Liberals.

They feel he's gone soft on Trudeau and overreacted with COVID-related restrictions. And they're upset with massive government spending that includes the $1.3 billion lost on the Keystone project.

Bolstering that split was a call this week by former Wildrose leader Brian Jean for Kenney to resign.

Kenney even came under criticism from members of his own caucus for the boozy non-socially distant dinner with several cabinet colleagues on the 'Sky Palace' patio last week.

Kenney has responded by focusing on some good news: the lifting of pandemic restrictions Thursday; and a joint federal-provincial agreement Wednesday that might lead to a billion-dollar clean-energy hydrogen plant in Edmonton in three years.

Kenney's major tactic, though, is to fire up the fog machine that is his "fight back" strategy, namely to unveil the wording of his referendum against the federal equalization program. The vote, to be held in conjunction with the municipal election this fall, is a cynical attempt to blame Ottawa for Alberta's problems.

This is Kenney's attempt to win back those crucial conservative votes while deflecting attention away from his failings.

But he'll have to convince them that not only can he fulfil his election promises for more jobs and a better economy but that getting hit by a $1.3-billion bus didn't really hurt.


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