Key election issue: Can Kenney save the oilsand project?

Plainly the Rachel-Justin partnership cannot, and Alberta’s prosperity is at stake


“All the proposed pipelines in Canada have effectively been blocked.” So reads a triumphant posting on the website of the anti-pipeline lobby known as “Corporate Ethics.” A neighbor of mine had a considerably less exuberant reaction to Alberta’s  pipeline standstill. Because of it, she had just lost her job. She certainly isn’t alone. By one reliable count, well over 100,000 jobs have been lost in the province in the last three years, much of it due to the halt in pipeline construction. In short, Alberta may be embarked on one of the worst economic disasters in its history.

One keeps seeing small but ominous indicators. For instance an inoperative foot problem so afflicts my driving that it has forced me to sell my  car. I asked a moderate price for it, received no offers and cut the price. Then I cut it again. Still no offers. “It’s the worst winter we’ve had in years,” says a friend in the automobile business. “People just aren’t buying. There are layoffs through the whole service sector.”

Meanwhile, new office space stands empty in downtown Calgary in expectation of a big boom that didn’t happen. Restaurants close. Streets seem empty at mid-day. Parking space isn’t anything like as hard to find as it once was.

The cause of this economic reversal is not mysterious. We have built or are building billion-dollar facilities to mine the heavy tar sands of Alberta, to process it, and ship it to where it can be refined into various fuel oils and gasoline. But once the plants were built we discovered we couldn’t gain legal authority for the pipelines to carry the product to various continental and world markets. Environmentalists oppose the pipelines m because the carbon content of the tar sands oil is too high, and will therefore hasten or worsen global warming. Indian bands simply don’t want pipelines crossing their territories.

So with billions already spent, the whole endeavor has come to a dead halt. The buildings sit there at Fort McMurray 275 miles (445b km) north of Edmonton, awaiting officialdom’s decisions. As one legal case against it is resolved, it seems that sets off two new ones, so  the reality is that the pipelines may never be built.

Others are waiting as well. Assuming swift completion, personnel were no doubt hired and have come to Alberta to take up a promised good job. But now there’s no job at all, and not likely to be, if  the views of the victorious Corporate Ethics should prevail. So what we’re beholding could easily come to rank as the biggest business misadventure in Canadian history.

Who’s to blame? In retrospect, it becomes evident that the whole project was done backward. Why could the rights to build the pipeline have been sought before any construction on the site was undertaken? I’ve never heard the answer to this, though doubtless there is one. Perhaps it was a pressure play, to persuade opponents that it had gone too far to be stopped. Well, it hadn’t.

Plainly, the project’s advocates had under-estimated the  power of the environmental movement, which has steadily gained strength through the last half of the 20th Century. The movement has three notable attributes. For one, what it claims is often true. Our spectacular technological advance has had a largely unforeseen downside. Damage, serious damage, was being done to much of our environment. Second, controls were needed but to be effective they must often be world wide and applied internationally. That would sometimes be very difficult to achieve, and how can you penalize countries who cheat? China, for instance.

Finally, the cause of safeguarding nature is in fact biblically grounded. In the Jewish heritage, wholly adopted by the Christians, God puts man in charge of nature and increasingly enables man to control nature. To deface and destroy it is, therefore, actively sinful.

Since protecting nature ultimately meant passing laws, the environmental cause inevitably became political. And since so much of the damage being done to nature was being done by industry, environmentalism gradually became more recognized as a leftwing cause than a rightwing– a misfortune, by the way, because the awesome and sometimes terrifying grandeur of the natural world should and oft-times does speak to us all.

Significantly, all environmental controls quickly came to involve another key participant, notably the scientist. Initially, the scientist was viewed as the ultimate authority, the person we should all turn to as an infallible arbiter. Within a short time, however, science too became politicized and each side would have its team of scientists, to back up its team of politicians and its team of publicists.

Is there any tangible hope of a solution? Given the present circumstances, not much. Rachel Notley, the socialist premier of Alberta, Canada’s most traditionally right-wing province, has been trying to form a partnership with the country’s hapless Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau. There has been no evidence of success. However, with a provincial election that will probably called in May, this introduces yet another character into the pipeline plot. namely Jason Kenney who has the united the right in a re-born Conservative party..

The polls show him ahead and probably the next premier. If he can win the election and then somehow untangle the pipeline problem, he will have saved his province from a major disaster. Certainly he offers far more hope of achieving this than anybody else who has to date been involved. But it will not be easy.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has aslo authored three little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters, The Revolution Nobody Covered and most recently The Time is Now. You can order copies here.

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