The Liberals have rolled the dice by making anti-oil-industry rhetoric a key part of their election campaign. The messaging has become louder and clearer in the campaign homestretch.
Minutes into the French-language debate last week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spoke about standing up to oil interests. Tweets from Liberal candidates have taken aim at pipelines, while other messaging from the Liberals links Conservatives to “dark oil money.”
It’s no surprise that the Liberals have mostly given up on winning seats in Alberta. But the party’s decision to single out an industry that is inextricably linked with the identity of Canada’s main oil-producing province has the potential to be poisonous to postelection national unity.
The major downside of portraying any supporter of Alberta’s biggest industry as a J.R. Ewing-clone is that the message will percolate well after Election Day, no matter the outcome of the vote. Talk of Alberta separation, while still pie in the sky, comes up in casual downtown Calgary conversations with depressing frequency. This Liberal messaging to go hard on the oil industry makes it worse.
As attention to environmental issues has become more focused in the campaign, the NDP has delighted in reminding the Liberals that they are part of the oil industry with their purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
But in Alberta, the purchase is viewed much differently. The sentiment is that last year, Kinder Morgan Inc. was days away from dropping the multibillion-dollar expansion project (and its regulatory delays) like a hot potato. The Liberals knew that the collapse of the project would have left Canada’s reputation among international investors in tatters. They expected to be able to sell the pipeline quickly but underestimated the difficulty of doing so. There is still major skepticism in the energy sector that the pipeline expansion will ever go ahead.
Alberta – facing capital flight, long-term unemployment and declining real estate values – has severely limited prospects for any short-term economic growth compared with many other parts of the country. Business leaders and workers feel set upon by a global market that is increasingly concerned with climate change, and no longer needs the province’s oil and natural gas as urgently as it once did. At the same time, many Albertans feel the province is being denied the opportunity to participate in the remaining decades of global fossil-fuel consumption.
And it’s not just the Liberals whose campaign messaging worries Albertans – it’s the NDP (who currently have one seat in Edmonton), the Greens and the Bloc, too. If the Liberals win a minority government, one of those smaller parties could play kingmaker.
The name-calling from the Liberals is about winning votes away from the other parties in swing ridings in B.C., Ontario and Quebec. It’s about making the climate-change crisis the focus of this campaign. And a visit to Alberta by activist Greta Thunberg, apparently set to take place in the days ahead, will focus a global spotlight on the environmental effects of Alberta’s oil industry.
But it’s galling for a federal leader to attack the oil industry when oil-sands production is such a massive driver of and contributor to Canada’s overall wealth. Oil and natural gas are Canada’s biggest exports.
To be sure, even before the campaign began, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was stoking Albertans’ anger over a Liberal law that bans oil shipments – mainly the kind from his province – from being exported out of the northern B.C. coast. Another law brought in an exhaustive new approval process for major projects that the oil industry says will kill future pipeline development. Alberta is not politically homogeneous. But many see these federal laws as unfairly targeting Canada’s oil and gas sector, while other industries located in Central Canada that still rely heavily on fossil-fuel use get different treatment.
When it comes down to it, dismissing Albertans’ concerns about the economy as just oil-industry propaganda is much easier than telling Canadians that they will have to cut down on flights and pay much more for gasoline.
It’s also easier than pricing the Liberal ambition to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 – a feat that will require a fundamental reckoning of the Canadian economy, worker displacement and some kind of viable relationship with Alberta.