Stephen Legault is a political and communications strategist who lives in Canmore, Alta. His 15th book, Taking a Break from Saving the World, will be released by Rocky Mountain Books in May.
At his second Throne Speech in a year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney doubled down on his commitment to looking in the rear-view mirror for Alberta’s economic future.
Under the UCP government, Tuesday’s speech declared, Alberta “is prepared to do whatever it takes to develop our [energy] resources responsibly and get them to market.” With barely a nod toward the impact that the province’s greenhouse-gas emissions are having on the climate, and how that in turn is ruining any hope of investments in our resource sector, Mr. Kenney decided to deliver a speech that would have been right for 1967, the heyday of Alberta’s oil-sands development.
In 2020, though, Albertans are looking for vision. Many are hoping to hear that the Premier was serious about economic diversification, especially after his comments earlier this month in Washington that Alberta should be a part of the energy transition that is occurring around the globe: “There is no reasonable person that can deny that in the decades to come we will see a gradual shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to other forms of energy."
With Teck Resources making the surprising decision on Feb. 23 to withdraw its application for the Frontier oil sands mine, the Speech from the Throne represented an opportunity for the Premier to back up his apparent new attitudes on the thorny topic of energy transition in the face of collapsing oil and gas prospects.
But not a single word of it suggested that Mr. Kenney is genuinely prepared to invest in Alberta’s future.
This is a surprise, given the urgency of his situation. So far, his grand plan to stabilize Alberta’s economy – in free fall since the price of oil tanked in 2014 – simply isn’t working. In fact, things have gotten worse. His taxpayer-funded handout to the province’s wealthiest corporations hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans; despite the giveaway, companies such as Husky Oil and Repsol – the Spanish energy giant that owns Talisman – have laid off hundreds of workers.
His “war room” against environmental activists has been a public embarrassment, and his attempts to bully the federal government into approving projects with threats of Western alienation and potential separation will get Alberta no closer to sound economic footing. Indeed, 19,000 additional Albertans were out of work in January of this year – and the trend line suggests more hard times are coming.
To be sure, Throne Speeches are largely ceremonial, replete with a purple-caped Lieutenant-Governor, a military band and a lot of pomp. But they are also an important indicator of the direction a government wants to take. It could have signalled the Premier’s interest in investing in renewable-energy infrastructure; Alberta’s electrical grid will eventually need an upgrade to prepare for the shift from pipelines to power lines that’s required to get wind and solar electricity to market. Further, a massive skills-retraining effort is needed to put Albertans back to work in the economy of the future, one where creativity and entrepreneurial skills will be valued as irreplaceable characteristics of the workforce. Automation will almost certainly further erode high-paying jobs in the oil patch, too, and the answer is to prepare workers – in particular the tens of thousands of young men whose career paths have been disrupted – for the jobs of the future.
The cost of Mr. Kenney’s inaction on economic diversification will be high. Alberta has the advantage of being home to many skilled clean-tech and renewable-energy workers already, but the speed at which the world is innovating in that area means that a lagging Alberta will result in the emigration of some of our best and brightest entrepreneurs.
Time is running out for Mr. Kenney. The longer he waits to signal an investment in renewable energy and the economic growth it will spark, the harder it will be for him to adjust the direction of this province not to mention his nascent party: electoral pressure will only force him to continue to appease his base.
That will be an opportunity to Alberta’s NDP. In their four years in government, Rachel Notley’s administration made significant efforts at diversifying the province’s economy, but it was never able to create the compelling narrative that linked the gradual shift to deep-decarbonization to the province’s skeptical electorate. Mr. Kenney’s continued lack of foresight may well give them another chance.
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