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Business Commentary Kenney’s attacks on oil sands critics won’t change anyone’s mind

Alberta’s new Premier seems to be confused about his job description.

On the eve of his swearing in on Tuesday, Jason Kenney tweeted: “There’s a new sheriff in Alberta.” It was just one of the warning shots the United Conservative Party Leader has fired on Twitter in recent days at those perceived to be blocking new pipelines and oil sands projects.

Mr. Kenney’s enemies list so far includes the federal government, British Columbia, Quebec, HSBC Holdings, most environmental groups and Ed Whittingham, the former head of the Pembina Institute who resigned from the Alberta Energy Regulator over the weekend.

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Mr. Kenney thanked (sort of) Mr. Whittingham, appointed by the former New Democratic government and a key player in drafting the NDP’s climate-change plan, tweeting that it was “gracious of [him] to resign a day before we could fire him.”

Before that, Mr. Kenney attacked HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, for “boycotting” the oil sands while its chief executive officer was attending a conference in Saudi Arabia, which last week executed 37 men convicted of terrorism in what Amnesty International called “sham trials.”

Facing pressure from investors and environmental activists, HSBC last year released a new climate-change policy that classifies new greenfield projects in the oil sands as “prohibited business” for the bank. Its existing investments in the oil sands are to be phased out.

The move was hard to swallow for many Canadians, and not just Albertans. It looks even more unseemly after HSBC CEO John Flint’s declaration last week that he was “excited” to be back in Saudi Arabia, saying: “This is an economy that we have a lot of confidence in. I think the future is bright. We are excited about the role we can continue to play here.”

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Last fall, Mr. Flint skipped a conference in Riyadh he had been scheduled to attend as the global media focused attention on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But the prospects of new business in Saudi Arabia soon proved too powerful to resist for Mr. Flint and other global bankers. HSBC was part of a syndicate of banks that earlier this month managed a US$12.5-billion bond sale for Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant.

Mr. Kenney’s outrage is understandable. It takes a skewed sense of business ethics to blacklist the oil sands, which remain subject to strict environmental and labour standards, while gushing over the prospects for business in a country with a despicable human-rights record. Alberta’s new government, Mr. Kenney insisted, “will not tolerate this kind of hypocrisy.”

But Mr. Kenney is mistaken if he thinks attacking HSBC will win Alberta any new friends. Surely he understands that, in crafting its new climate-change policy, the bank was merely responding to legitimate concerns about the oil sands, which require more carbon-intensive methods of extraction than conventional oil deposits. Lenders such as HSBC are also worried about the risks involved in lending to oil sands projects that could become stranded assets.

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Mr. Kenney may believe winning a landslide majority government gives him a mandate from voters to attack critics of the oil sands. And, to be sure, his promise to create a “war room” to counter “misinformation” about Alberta’s energy industry appears to be popular.

But there is a big difference between making the case for new pipelines and taking aim at anyone or anything that might stand in the way of them. Mr. Kenney may be giving voice to the frustrations of many Albertans. But it won’t do a thing to change anyone’s mind.

Indeed, Mr. Kenney will only intensify opposition to the oil sands if he follows through with his vow to scrap the climate change plan former premier Rachel Notley put in place. The carbon tax and cap on oil sands emissions her government was implementing earned it the political capital it needed to win support outside Alberta for new pipelines.

It was not Ms. Notley’s fault that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has not advanced, nor was she to blame for TransCanada Corp.’s cancellation of its proposed Energy East pipeline. Mr. Kenney won’t win support for either of those projects outside Alberta by declaring war on anyone that expresses reservations about them.

The oil sands don’t need a new sheriff; they need a better salesman.

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