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Opinion Petro-nostalgia doesn’t do conservatives – or Canadians – any good

Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC, and now splits his time between researching public opinion about the energy and the environment at the University of Calgary and teaching journalism at Mount Royal University.

In the span of about two weeks, federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer both teamed up with some oil-industry executives in a private meeting to devise a game plan for defeating the governing Liberals – and promised to unveil a detailed climate change plan.

It seems like a bit of a contradiction in terms, but it’s the tightrope that he and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney are both walking, if indelicately. The pair have whipped up public anger about Western Canada’s sluggish oil and gas sector to rally the base, and Mr. Scheer looks intent on mimicking Mr. Kenney’s winning strategy of championing lunch-bucket oil workers and “everyday people,” while saying we can both grow the energy industry and maintain rigorous environmental standards.

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The hope, for Mr. Scheer: solidify his lead in Canada’s prairie provinces ahead of the federal election, ostensibly so that a Prime Minister Scheer could put the full weight of the federal government behind his vague “plan to protect the environment.”

Ultimately, most voters likely shrugged their shoulders when they heard the Conservative leader met with Alberta energy players behind closed doors; the party and some in Alberta’s energy industry have been at least loosely connected for decades.

But forging such close ties with activist elements of the Alberta’s energy industry – while amplifying its nostalgic celebration of the “modern miracle of hydrocarbons” and its wistfulness for the good times that came when Alberta’s economy cooked with oil and gas – could ultimately make Mr. Scheer’s proclaimed pledges, and his main ambition for the country’s top job, a lot tougher.

There are, no doubt, short-term power politics at play here – but there are also longer-term implications about how little gets asked of industry and individuals with respect to climate change by Conservative politicians, and how their key messages blend together – seemingly without recognition that the good old days aren’t likely to return.

The Conservatives’ daylong strategy meeting in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was organized by the Modern Miracle Network, a pro-oil organization with a mission to “shift the conversation surrounding energy" and “dispel the narratives that vilify industry and stall progress in Canada.”

Questerre Energy Corp. CEO Michael Binnion, the group’s founder and an unapologetic booster of Canada’s oil and gas industry, argued in a company-website Q&A that the energy industry faces “tremendous” opposition from “environmental groups and their backers who see an advantage for themselves in a new fuels future.” Mr. Binnion recently tweeted that “Alberta is in a ‘death spiral’ because private investment was chased away.”

This discourse parallels the talk of the Yellow Vest protesters and the convoy that headed to Ottawa in mid-February to protest, among many things, the federal government’s environmental policies and levies on carbon – which was joined in their mission by Mr. Scheer and Mr. Kenney.

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At its core, this rhetoric yearns for the better economic times that came with higher oil prices; protesters told personal stories of the financial hardship associated with Alberta’s stubbornly sluggish economy in recent years. It’s also inherently pessimistic, though, and driven by a faith that a return to glory will come from scrapping carbon taxes, cutting red tape and unleashing the forces of free enterprise.

But this sidelines or criticizes key voices who actually talk proudly of their work to cut greenhouse gasses – including big players in the energy sector. Royal Dutch Shell, of note, recently announced it may leave some industry groups, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, because those groups’ climate policies do not align with Shell’s desire to “engage constructively with others on climate change.” And it ignores the urgency required to deal with climate change, eliding what individuals and the oil patch might have to give up or spend to protect the environment, as Mr. Kenney and Mr. Scheer have also promised to do with forthcoming policy plans.

Polls show most Canadians remain concerned about climate change. If Mr. Kenney and Mr. Scheer fail to meet expectations around the environment, it could be politically costly – and their ties and rhetoric limit the horizon of possibilities in their approach to climate change. They have positioned themselves as both champions of an idyllic, prosperous past while feinting at plans to effectively deal with climate change. They make no demands of Canadians, and do not suggest a need for real and pressing change.

No sacrifice is being asked of industry or individuals. And surely, asking for nothing will just get us more of the same.

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