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Climate, Alberta, and the Heavy Hand of Populism

David Parker (Take Back Alberta), Danielle Smith (Alberta Premier and United Conservative Party leader), and Peter Kiss (Morgan Construction and Environmental)

The Alberta United Conservative Party blocks climate action and the Alberta economy with a combination of ideology, money, back-room politics, and short-term thinking.

I usually avoid politics in my climate work. But in the aftermath of the renewable energy moratorium, it’s hard not to despair about Alberta politics and the rigid mindset that hamstrings climate action and our economy. It’s harder still not to see the United Conservative Party as the epicentre of this intransigence.

Let’s take a closer look at the politics of the Alberta renewable energy moratorium and its messy aftermath.

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Renewable Energy Moratorium

On March 1, the Alberta renewables moratorium came to an end. Or perhaps we should say it shifted into a new phase. I’m referring, of course, to the pause on renewable energy projects greater than 1 megawatt, which the Alberta government abruptly imposed last August. Acting without warning, and apparently at the behest of no one other than her political supporters, Premier Daniel Smith froze regulatory applications for 118 projects representing $33 billion in investment and 24,000 job-years

Never mind that the sector was booming, with Alberta drawing more renewables investment than any other province. Never mind the renewable sector’s recent track record — $5 billion in investment since 2019 and the creation of 5,500 jobs. Never mind the low cost of renewables, which are now cheaper than fossil energy. All of that came to a juddering halt last August over concerns about the impacts on agricultural land, scenery, end-of-life reclamation, and system reliability.

To be sure, it’s reasonable and prudent to assess projects holistically — to evaluate their environmental impacts and life cycle effects. It would be great if we also subjected oil, gas, and coal projects to such scrutiny.

But many considered the renewables moratorium a form of overkill. Farmers already had the right to refuse renewable projects on their land if they did not want them. Reclamation of renewable facilities is much simpler and less toxic than that of fossil energy projects.

As for system reliability, the January grid alert actually resulted from a combination of technical and market factors. Two gas generators went offline unexpectedly. A lack of intertie capacity impeded Alberta’s ability to import power from other jurisdictions. An Alberta price limit of $1,000 per megawatt hour left the province unable to purchase power when prices hit $2,000 per megawatt hour. All of these things require some form of action — but an outright freeze on applications was widely held to be unnecessary.

New Alberta Renewable Energy Rules

On March 1, the moratorium officially ended. The Edmonton Journal summarized the new rules.

An “agriculture first” policy will require renewable proponents to prove all projects sited on agricultural land are compatible with farming. It will also ban renewable projects outright from Class 1 and 2 agricultural lands. (Agricultural land class in Alberta definitions are exceedingly technical (PDF icon); the province has no Class 1 lands, and Class 2 lands probably deserve some form of protection, which renewable projects can provide in many cases.)

Renewables will only be permitted on Crown lands on a case-by-case basis. A 35 kilometer exclusion zone around “pristine viewscapes” will ban wind turbines from 76 per cent of southern Alberta land. Developers will be required to post bonds or other security for reclamation costs. The Alberta government has also hinted that it may impose additional (and unequal) transmission costs for renewable energy.

The new rules left developers with a great deal of uncertainty. Evan Pivnick of Clean Energy Canada called them “an uncertainty bomb,” adding that Alberta was actively trying to thwart the development of renewable energy. Jorden Dye, director of the Business Renewables Centre-Canada, called the new rules “a second ‘soft moratorium.’” CanREA president and CEO Vittoria Bellissimo said “it is critical to get these policy changes right, and to do so quickly.”

Favouritism for Oil and Gas

Favouritism is plainly evident in the new renewables policy — and, indeed, in other Alberta environmental and economic policies. Parents always say they love all their kids the same, but you can see at a glance that the premier and her party love fossil energy the most.

Oil and gas facilities routinely release toxins, harming agricultural land and livestock. The Kearl tailings pond leaks — still ongoing — endanger Indigenous hunting, fishing, and foraging practices. Flare stacks loom large in the pristine viewscapes now off limits to renewables.

Alberta Rocky Mountain viewscape and gas plant flare stack
Photo: Brad Smith (flickr)

Oil and gas facilities have dotted our landscape with as much as $260 billion in unfunded liabilities, which the Alberta government seems in no hurry to address. As for property rights, rural landowners now find themselves in a peculiar situation. Owing to the new regulations, they can’t readily say yes to renewables, while owing to longstanding subsurface regulations, they can’t say no to oil and gas. Listen to the scolding, hectoring tone of the Premier’s announcement, and you might sense personal animosity at work in the new renewables policy.

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Fossil Energy Bias

The bias for fossil energy over renewable energy is obvious. The most recent evidence is the yearly $200 electric vehicle tax announced in the 2024 budget.

But for fossil fuel energy, subsidies and giveaways abound, such as the absurd “war room” created by Jason Kenney’s government to provide (at taxpayer expense) gratis public relations and marketing for oil and gas. Or Danielle Smith’s support, as United Conservative Party leadership candidate, for the RStar program, which would have provided $100 million in royalty credits to incentivize oil and gas companies to clean up sites for which they already bear legal responsibility. Or the Alberta government’s long-term support for the Grassy Mountain open-pit coal project (also called Northback or Benga), in spite of repeated federal and provincial court decisions upholding a previous regulatory ban. Or the years-long national Conservative pushback against carbon pricing, which economists have consistently supported as the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Conservative Connection

Here in Alberta, the United Conservative Party routinely and staunchly supports oil, gas, and coal. This pattern aligns with broader, national Conservative support for oil and gas. While other parties also work with the industry, none offer such unconditional support as provincial and national Conservatives.

Political parties typically have two types of supporters — donors and activists. Generous donors are an obvious asset for a political party. Money is the lifeblood of politics, funding mundane party operations, staff salaries, and media buys.

Activists are vital in two ways. They provide free labour, stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors throughout a riding. They foster engagement, influencing their families and friends. They also energize themselves. An activist who volunteers for a campaign is almost certain to turn out when election day comes around.

United Conservative Party and Take Back Alberta

The United Conservative Party’s most prominent activist supporter is David Parker, the founder of the Take Back Alberta movement.

Take Back Alberta bills itself as an educational organization, which promotes mass participation in the political system. But its rightward tilt is pronounced; its ties to United Conservative Party politicians, murky and numerous; and its finances, undisclosed.

David Parker cites localism as his driving force, or one of them. He wants to decentralize power. Parker also admits to a messianic complex, decrying the limited role for heroism in modern life. He’s deeply conservative on social matters, urging women to set aside their careers in favour of having children. He is virulently transphobic, characterizing gender-affirming therapy as “castration” and “genital mutilation” and accusing trans advocates of aiming “to destroy the fertility and God-given bodies of our children.”

Parker’s comments about climate and energy illuminate links between social conservatism and climate obstructionism. When the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Impact Assessment Act last year, he tweeted last year “Drill baby drill!” He attributes a sinister motive to the emissions reductions favoured by the NDP, telling his like-minded followers “You are the carbon they are trying to reduce.”

There’s little doubt that Parker influences the premier. The two spoke frequently about political matters before Smith became United Conservative Party leader, and she attended his wedding in March 2023. But perhaps Parker’s influence over Smith is about to wane. Just last week, she rebuked him over an ugly tweet about Pierre Poilievre and his wife

I don’t care for Parker’s views, but I find him impressive in many respects. He’s a strategic thinker, with energy and diligence to spare, and he knows how to amass power. The United Conservative Party is his vehicle. “Leaders come and go, folks,” he once said. “We need to control the party. We need to control the party that’s in power.” He has now installed TBA activists in every UCP board seat, and he aims to capture Alberta school boards as well. 

Parker is a formidable political operator, but a malevolent man. His messianic complex precludes empathy and self-restraint. He threatens the rights and liberty of vulnerable Albertans. We need to keep a wary eye on this man.

United Conservative Party Donors

Who bankrolls the UCP? Writing in The Bullet, political scientist Matthew Corbeil shares the results of his extensive research

Contrary to what you might expect, Big Oil does not stand solidly behind the United Conservative Party. Corbeil traced the professional connections of UCP donors in 2018, the year of his research. He found only one donor affiliated with one of Alberta’s Big Six oil companies — Brian Ferguson, then president of Cenovus Energy. Executives from CNRL, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy, and Suncor Energy all declined to open their chequebooks. Executives from Enbridge, Kinder Morgan Canada, LNG Canada, Shell Canada, Suncor, and Teck Resources also declined to make donations.

Corbeil also analyzes the Fossil-Power Top 50 list published by the Corporate Mapping Project, focusing on the Emitters category, which consists of Western Canada corporations directly involved in the extraction, processing and transportation of oil, gas and coal. Of the 21 corporations on that list, 13 made no contribution to the UCP. Of the eight that did, only four contributed the maximum allowable amount of $4,000.

Instead, the UCP draws its support from what we might call Little Oil — smaller producers, drillers, oilfield services, and pipeline construction companies. People associated with real estate developers, cattle ranching ventures, and used-car dealerships also made contributions.

Corbeil provides some revealing mini-profiles of the UCP’s heavy hitters. One of them is Peter Kiss, president and CEO of Morgan Construction and Environmental, Ltd., an oilfield construction firm. Morgan has worked on reclamation and remediation projects in the oil sands, mass demolition in Fort McMurray, and a road project associated with the Site C hydroelectric dam in B.C. When the University of British Columbia student body and faculty association urged the UBC board of governors to divest from fossil fuels, Kiss vowed not to hire any UBC grads. He concluded this pledge with the words “Eat Cows, Drill Oil, Be Albertan.” His X profile reads “Proud of my massive carbon footprint that employs so many.” 

Another large United Conservative Party donor that year was Whitecap Resources CEO Grant Fagerheim. Whitecap is a Western Canada energy company producing about 75,000 barrels of energy per day. In 2018, it had a net income of $65 million — mere pocket change for one of Alberta’s Big Six.

Fagerheim uses Whitecap as a platform for his political activism. During the 2019 federal election, he urged Whitecap’s Calgary-based employees and their family members to vote Conservative. Three other Whitecap execs or board members also donated the maximum $4,000 to the UCP that year.

Corbeil makes a telling observation, drawing on the work of the late American sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills placed conservatives into two camps — the sophisticated and the practical. He defined sophisticated conservatives as flexible actors, able to adjust to political facts not necessarily to their liking, such as the New Deal and powerful unions. In modern Alberta, the sophisticated conservatives are the Bix Six and other international oil firms. They were able to adapt to the NDP’s carbon price. They could accept the Trudeau government’s bargain — national carbon pricing in exchange for the TMX pipeline.

Practical conservatives, by contrast, consider primarily their “narrow economic concerns.” They tend to buck political trends to which they cannot adapt. In modern Alberta, the practical conservatives obstruct carbon pricing and all other attempts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike the majors, they fared poorly during the era of low oil prices. In the coming decline of the fossil fuel sector, they will fare poorly again. We can predict that they will double down on red meat conservatism.

Conservative Populism in Alberta

This last point brings us to populism. As oil and gas production declines, the UCP will have difficulty adapting if Little Oil and social conservatives remain in control of the party. It may also have trouble financing its operations if many small energy producers go bankrupt. 

How will the UCP stay in power? One method would be to follow the Trump playbook, fostering discontent among the disaffected and newly marginalized. It will emphasize social conservatism and fossil fuel nostalgia — a politics that may resonate strongly with displaced oil and gas workers.

Conservative politicians the world over have become de facto fossil fuel marketers, doing their utmost to facilitate the sale of hydrocarbons and maintain the bubble of petroleum assets. In pursuit of this mission, they willingly sacrifice the best interests of their constituents, including affordability, a healthy environment, other economic sectors, and sound public finance.

In Alberta, the alliance supporting the UCP is a potent force. In the 2023 election, the party garnered 49 seats out of 87 with 52.6 per cent of the popular vote.

Core elements of the UCP either mistrust or are openly hostile to renewable energy development in Alberta. The abrupt renewable energy moratorium and continuing restrictions on development are costing us all. Last year, over 50% of new electricity generation in the U.S. came from solar installations. Only 18% came from natural gas. We have a choice to embrace this trend or get left behind.

The renewable energy backlash shows what the last United Conservative Party victory cost us. There will be no lasting progress on climate until we defeat the alliance that supports it. 

Populism can be stopped, but it takes great ideas and hard work. Political strategists, put your thinking caps on. How would you do it? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

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