The Victory Speech Alberta Will Never Hear

We let oil turn our citizens into subjects. Now we must turn it around.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 16 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for three decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Fellow Albertans: 

We live in revolutionary and dangerous times, and today you have voted to face uncomfortable truths with rare courage. 

Let us begin by admitting our mistakes, for every petro-state gets blinded by the rollercoaster of extraction and deluded by the promise of riches.

Our predicament is plain: As Terry Lynn Karl has long noted, petro-states have relied on “an unsustainable development trajectory fueled by an exhaustible resource — and the very revenue produced by the resource has created implacable barriers to change.”

In so doing we violated the principles of oil development as laid out by former premier Peter Lougheed. Having lived through busts and booms Lougheed recognized that oil was an unreliable economic partner.

To temper the perils of rapid bitumen development, he advocated several Norwegian-like principles: Behave like an owner. Collect your fair share. Save for the rainy day. Go slow. Add value. And clean up the mess. 

Alberta’s political elites flouted every one of Lougheed’s principles, because it was easy and convenient to do so.

Albertans overspent in the boom years. We didn’t save for the rainy days. We didn’t behave like owners or control the pace of development. We didn’t collect our fair share of royalties. We generated massive cleanup liabilities by failing to collect proper security deposits from oil and gas extractors. We encouraged wasteful overproduction with low royalties. We refused to add value and exported more and more raw bitumen. We let our captured regulator work for corporations instead of Albertans. We ignored our future and our children’s legacy. We got greedy, and we got burned. 

Now, I know that many of you feel that U.S.-funded environmentalists and their campaign against the oil sands have played a role in Alberta’s oily predicament. 

They have played a role, but not in a way generally acknowledged. The problem with the well-intentioned activism against pipelines and the rapid development of the oil sands is that it entrenches a different kind of dependency. 

As the English writer Paul Kingsnorth has explained — and I know politicians aren’t supposed to quote poets — environmentalism routinely involves identifying an enemy and then taking them on. “There is always a them who needs to sort the problem,” says Kingsnorth.

That attitude removes the public from the debate and gives citizens an excuse to wash their hands of their own complicity in consumerism and wasteful fossil fuel spending. Many disengage altogether from the threat of climate change, forgetting that our large cars, monster homes and endless jet setting are bringing civilization and the ecosystems it depends upon closer to collapse.

Albertans and Canadians can’t afford that ruinous game anymore. We have all played a role in building a stupid pedal-to-the-metal economy with cheap fossil fuels. Like it or not that era is now ending with the chaos of price volatility, difficult oil, and politics as extreme as the weather. 

As Albertans we must take responsibility for our vulnerabilities and own the bad decisions we have made. We developed our bitumen resources too quickly. We privatized gains and socialized the costs. We let oil turn our citizens into subjects.

But only by acting as Canadians, and only by taking joint responsibility for our excessive and wasteful use of fossil fuels, will we ever get anywhere. 

Meanwhile Alberta needs to lessen its dependency on oil as much as any petro-state. So, too, do every province and every Canadian.

The glory days of the bitumen boom are not likely to return as the world grapples with climate change and experiments with renewable energy.  

We must remember that renewables will not offer the same kind of consistent and reliable power that fossil fuels have, and that we will have to make do with much less energy spending.  

Consuming less energy will have unexpected impacts on the economy, and that’s why our reforms will start slow. We will constantly evaluate the results and make corrections when necessary.

Our primary goal will be to reduce energy consumption in the province by one to two per cent a year, until the average volume of annual oil consumption per person has fallen to at least seven barrels a year. (Current annual consumption is about 20 barrels per Canadian.)

We will use the carrot and the stick. Citizens that consume less energy will get higher tax refunds, while those owning large cars and homes will be taxed accordingly. 

Scarcity, not affluence, drives innovation and change. The darkest hours bring the most luminous thinking. 

Business as usual is long over, and we must abandon the ideological blinders of the left and the right. We must diversity and re-localize our economy. We must consider all possibilities with an open mind. 

That means, beginning today, we will no longer advocate for the Trans Mountain pipeline or support the national propaganda campaign trying to sell it to ordinary Canadians.

Exporting unrefined heavy oil to China will not save jobs, decrease Alberta’s oil dependency, nor solve any major national problem. 

But increasing tanker traffic in the Salish Sea will impact the lives and economy of one-third of the population of Western Canada.

Nor will this conflict-laden pipeline enrich Albertans. China will not pay more for our heavy oil than U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. To make the $10-billion expansion economic, the nation will have to subsidize pipeline tolls. These subsidies are wrong and wasteful. 

At the same time we will not weaponize our oil, as Russia and Saudi Arabia have done, and threaten to cut off fuel supplies to British Columbia. 

We know that B.C. would justifiably respond by cutting off critical condensate and methane exports to Alberta. Everyone loses in an energy war. 

In return, we ask that B.C. Premier John Horgan make a sacrifice and end his climate change hypocrisy by cancelling the province’s subsidies for LNG Canada and fracking in northeastern B.C.

Large methane exports, supported by water and electricity subsidies from the Site C dam, are not compatible with concerted action on climate change or reduced energy consumption for all Canadians. 

We invite the government of British Columbia to get serious and be part of the transition. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has noted that “We become civilized only by knowing what to refrain from doing.”

Albertans understand that the task of weaning our province off oil will be difficult and multi-layered. We have all grown fat and lazy on cheap fossil fuel energy. Yet we can no longer live with the explosive volatility of oil prices or the emissions these fuels generate. Or for that matter their massive cleanup liabilities. 

Effective immediately, the government will enact the following reforms, many of which will require emergency legislation. 

The fracking industry, which spends more money than it earns, will be prohibited from expanding in Alberta. 

All fracking in the Duvernay and Montney shale formations will end within five years. 

Fracking is a disruptive and destructive technology that industrializes rural communities. The province’s groundwater and agricultural communities are too valuable to be sacrificed for this uneconomic industry — a signature of peak oil.

The Alberta Energy Regulator, an agency funded by industry with no public interest mandate, will no longer have any control over the allocation of ground or surface water. The fox cannot govern the henhouse. 

The province will establish a new Freshwater Board that will manage water with two goals: restoring local ecosystems and creating greater resilience for agricultural communities facing the extremes of climate change. No development will be allowed in the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, the great watershed that modulates water flows on the prairies.

All revenue from oil and gas royalties will go to the Heritage Fund and not to general revenue. Governments that run on oil revenue represent the interests of oil; governments that run on taxes represent the interests of their citizens. A two per cent sales tax, which will increase to four per cent, will replace declining revenues from oil and gas extraction. 

Alberta will also collect its fair share of profits from oil and gas production. Bitumen royalties will increase by five per cent, and there will be a new tax on the export of every barrel of raw bitumen to the United States. 

A Royalty Accountability Board, independent of the ministry of energy, will report directly and regularly to the legislature on the effectiveness of Alberta’s royalty regime. 

Alberta will also establish a Government Accountability Office, because petro-states are notoriously poor in statecraft. Its first job will be to make recommendations on cutting government services by 10 per cent over the next two years. Low energy spending requires leaner governments, smaller companies and stronger communities.

Instead of pipelines Alberta will focus on adding value to bitumen production with partial upgrading and petrochemical development. Bitumen production, which nearly totals three million barrels a day, will be frozen as of today. By 2030 the province hopes to reduce bitumen production to two million barrels a day. At that point every barrel should be value-added.

In the coming months Alberta will set up a Reclamation Corporation that will employ former oil and gas workers in plugging and reclaiming inactive wells and cleaning up other abandoned infrastructure.  

The program, which will report to the legislature every six months, will be funded by the new five-per-cent increase in bitumen royalties and a three-per-cent reclamation tax on the sales of gasoline in the province. The program will also support needed research on effective restoration of contaminated oil and gas sites. Alberta will no longer privatize gains and socialize costs.

The province will also develop a solar community program. It will allow municipalities in southern Alberta, one of the sunniest geographies on earth, to provide local solar energy for local use with the goal of reducing overall energy consumption and making southern Alberta more resilient. In addition, no renewable developments will be allowed to take place on fescue grasslands. Windmills and solar projects will only be allowed on land already disturbed. 

This is just the beginning of many radical reforms that will guide Alberta to a leaner future and a more localized economy. 

Our overreaching goal here is to downsize the way we live. The U.S. researcher Maria Saxton recently studied 80 citizens who moved into smaller homes about 400 square feet in size. The researcher found that modest accommodation influenced “every major component of downsizers’ lifestyles, including food, transportation and consumption of goods and services.”

People, who lived like “stickers” as opposed to boomers, ate healthier diets, grew more of their own food, walked more and drove less. They shed their immodest appetites and adopted more human ones. 

And that’s what we must do as a province and as a nation without complaint and without delay.

Climate change is not the only emergency we face. Economic inequality, uncontrolled dehumanizing technologies and the overproduction of competing elites (like the Clintons vs. the Trumps) threaten political stability on every continent. 

It is late in the day, and our economic and biological future is no longer assured. 

We will all have to make sacrifices to avoid collapse and political violence. 

But if Albertans can replace quantity with quality; speed with deliberation; polarization with cooperation; individualism with conviviality; distraction with focus; and high energy spending with conservation, we can, at least, begin a difficult journey down a saner path.

And perhaps we can dethrone the corrosive power of oil and become masters of our house again.  [Tyee]

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