The House

Federal parties stick-handle climate change, energy and economy in Alberta

Conservatives expect a near-sweep in Alberta, but a handful of ridings remain at play in September election.

Conservatives expect a near-sweep but a handful of ridings remain at play in September election

Workers perform maintenance on an oil rig in Alberta. The future of the province's energy sector could be determined by the results of the Sept. 20 federal election. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Lewis Lix still thinks about the sunrises he watched while working on oil rigs in western Canada.

"You could be covered in blood, sweat and diesel fuel, but you could take five minutes at 4:45 a.m. to watch the sun come up. When people ask what I miss about the job, I say 'the skies.'"

Lix, a 34-year-old father who now lives in Edmonton, spent almost 10 years working in the oil and gas industry. He went through a few boom-and-bust cycles, a lot of time away from his family, and eventually a realization that he couldn't continue the work forever. 

"I could just see the writing on the wall," he told CBC's The House in an interview airing Saturday.

"I didn't want to work in an industry that was so volatile and surrounded by so much political controversy. I just wanted a future in something ... that my kids might be proud of me for doing."

Lewis Lix, a former oil and gas worker, talks about his journey to a new career and his continued concerns for the future.

Lix is now enrolled in the Alternative Energy Technology program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

It's not always an easy path. He says there's a narrative in Alberta that, "if you're not doing everything you possibly can for oil and gas, you're anti-Albertan or anti-western Canadian." 

Energy central to Alberta's economy, politics

The energy sector is still the backbone of Alberta's economy, even as the industry faces waves of corporate consolidation, the ripple economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and national and international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the 2019 federal election, the Conservative Party of Canada took 33 of the 34 seats in the province. The party's platform this year promises to keep a price on carbon, invest in carbon capture and storage, and introduce a renewable natural gas mandate.

"The Conservatives are the only party that's actually proud of Canada's energy industry as the key driver of the country's economy," said Katy Merrifield of Wellington Advocacy, a national public affairs firm. Merrifield has previously worked for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and former B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark. 

"The petroleum industry provides over half a million high-paying jobs for Canadians, generates about $10-million in government revenue through taxes and royalties every year, and about $100-billion in GDP annually. So, frankly, electorally, it's no wonder they sweep the province every federal election." 

Most political analysts agree that this year's federal election won't be decided in Alberta. But the federal parties are still crafting their messages to Alberta voters carefully. 

The NDP proposes an emissions reduction target of 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and wants to end all subsidies to the oil and gas industry. The Liberals have echoed the call to end those subsidies and have pledged $2-billion to help workers in oil-producing provinces transition to a greener economy.

"The Liberals are trying to have an honest faith conversation regarding the fact that many of the oil and gas jobs that people in this province have worked hard at and grown accustomed to, that many of those jobs might not be coming back," says Zain Velji, a political strategist who has worked on federal Liberal campaigns in the province. 

Velji acknowledges that message won't translate into Alberta votes for the Liberals. But he says the party's message is, "We will not leave you behind," which could help bridge conversations around western alienation. 

A handful of ridings at play in Alberta

While Alberta's Blue Wall is expected to remain mostly intact in this election, there are a few places where chips might emerge — such as in Edmonton Griesbach, where NDP newcomer Blake Desjarlais is facing off against Conservative incumbent Kerry Diotte.

The riding is held provincially by NDP MLA Janis Irwin, who has thrown her support behind Desjarlais, a Métis activist who grew up on the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement. 

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh disagreed on the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The federal NDP is now targeting new seats in Calgary and Edmonton. (CBC)

But the provincial and federal branches of the NDP aren't always in alignment, a most noticeable point when it comes to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley fought vociferously for the project while she was premier, and clashed with Jagmeet Singh over whether it should go ahead. 

Desjarlais says the Liberals' decision to purchase the pipeline can't be easily reversed.

"I'm against the TMX pipeline and its expansion, but I understand we've already invested in it," he said.

"We might have to look at a future where the TMX pipeline is operational, but that means we have to make more aggressive steps in other sectors, like agriculture for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hit our targets." 

Taking a break from his studies, Lewis Lix says he believes his future is bright in Alberta — and while the province's economic prosperity might rely on oil and gas for some time yet, he thinks a transition will eventually occur. 

"We have an opportunity to jump on board now instead of just arguing with one another and having no change happen or having change be so, so slow."

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