Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and a former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine
One of the stranger aspects of life under the yoke of COVID-19 is how government press conferences have suddenly transformed from mundane into must-see TV. Donald Trump has obviously been the driving force behind that, but Jason Kenney gave him a run for his money on Friday. No, Mr. Kenney didn’t spend his time at the podium touting the merits of untested drugs or suggesting that injecting disinfectants might be a cure to COVID-19. But he did have a decidedly Trumpian reaction when a 660 News reporter, Tom Ross, asked about whether it was time to start reconsidering the province’s all-in bet on oil and gas.
“Listen, our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta, not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes,” the Premier said. He seemed particularly put out by the fact that the question had even been asked. “That kind of question, in the middle of an economic crisis, from a Calgary-based media outlet – really, frankly, throws me for a loop. It sounds like you’re reporting for the Tyee or something.”
Jason Markusoff, the Western correspondent for Maclean’s, wasn’t having any of that. On Twitter, he suggested that “what’s particularly odious about [his] swipe is the inherent assumption that Calgary reporters ought to be petro-patriotic hometown industry defenders; like there’s something un-Albertan about even asking about a Green New Deal or sharp transition.” Unfortunately, none of the other reporters at that press conference were able to follow up on Mr. Kenney’s aggressive answer, since he abruptly handed the reins over to Energy Minister Sonya Savage and left the room.
I’m willing to cut the Premier some slack here. He’s under enormous stress right now, as the province faces down both the life-and-death consequences of COVID-19 and the brutal economic reality of single-digit – and, briefly, negative – oil prices.
The budget he rushed through the legislature just a few months ago now seems like a weird dream, given it was predicated on an average oil price of $58 per barrel. Instead, after pledging repeatedly to fight the province’s budget deficit, he will now have his name attached to the single biggest one in Alberta’s history. Worse, he still has to find a way to resuscitate an economy that’s on the verge of flatlining.
His response to the reporter’s question on Friday makes it clear, in case it wasn’t already obvious, that his preferred way to do that is by betting on the return of higher commodity prices. It might not even be a bad bet, either. The collapse in oil prices has hurt Alberta’s energy companies, but it has absolutely devastated their peers in the United States. Market watchers are already suggesting the collapse of the shale industry could ultimately be a boon for Canadian producers, who had already spent the past few years cutting costs and tightening up their operations. And even the most aggressive forecasts for the transition away from fossil fuels still see 70 million barrels per day of demand by 2040 – demand that, Mr. Kenney rightly says, should be met by Canadian sources where possible.
Still, it was impossible to miss the fear and loathing in the Premier’s response to what was a relatively innocuous question about a phenomenon that isn’t about to go away. “We’re not going to meet with a small minority in Congress that wants to pursue the ideological fantasy of shutting down the modern industrial economy,” he told the reporter. The problem Alberta faces is that this minority grows with each passing day, and their belief in the need to reduce global emissions and invest more heavily in renewable energy is anything but a fantasy.
Just look south to Texas, which now leads the United States in wind energy capacity and is well on its way to being the second-biggest source of solar PV capacity after California. Even George P. Bush, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office (and nephew of former President George W. Bush), is willing to sing its praises. “The Texas energy industry carries on,” he tweeted recently, “ensuring that millions of Texans continue to have the energy resources they depend on every day. All the more reason to continue diversifying our sources of energy.” Even Saudi Arabia understands it can’t keep doubling down on the same hand. Earlier this year, it announced a $30-billion investment in renewable energy by 2025 as part of the broader plan to diversify the Kingdom’s oil-oriented economy.
But in Alberta, it’s apparently still heresy in the government’s eyes to seriously consider this future and where the province can fit into it. Never mind that the boom in wind and solar energy in Texas is creating thousands of new jobs, and that those technologies could easily do the same in Alberta if given half a chance. For now, it seems like it’s still oil and gas or bust – and that anybody who suggests otherwise can expect a tongue-lashing from the Premier.
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