Turner Valley "Buy Alberta Oil" billboard, 1940. Wikimedia Commons

Glen Argan: Alberta narrative heads for unhappy end

  • May 12, 2018

Forty years ago, I moved to Alberta from Saskatchewan imbued with the stereotype that my new province was full of cowboys, fundamentalists and wealthy oil barons who cared nothing about the environment. It didn’t take me long to realize that while there was truth in the stereotype, Alberta had numerous people who fell outside this cartoonish caricature.

I found, for example, many environmentalists, the majority of them ordinary, hard-working folks. I also found farmers whose interests did not always coincide with those of the petroleum industry. I further discovered a determined core who sought to battle the world’s injustices.

Still, there was and is a provincial narrative which says the goal of Albertans is to strive for economic development, in particular development built around the extraction of oil and gas resources.

A narrative is a sense of the past and future which flows through the blood of a people, a story which seems so natural that few consider that we might promote a different story for our people.

When I moved here, the premier of Alberta was Peter Lougheed, known throughout Canada not unreasonably as a champion of the oil industry. Yet, Lougheed also tried to broaden the Alberta narrative to that of a diverse economy, one which included processing oil and gas before it was shipped out of the province. 

Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives ran up massive electoral victories. Even so, he was unable to alter the narrative.

After Lougheed’s retirement in 1985, the narrative grew narrower. Diversification received only lip service, if considered at all, and the multi-billion-dollar Heritage Savings and Trust Fund was frittered away. The narrative became that Alberta must get every ounce of oil and gas out of the ground and off to market. That meant rapid development of the oil sands and fracking hard-to-get oil and gas reserves. Those, such as environmentalists, who questioned such practices and the overall narrative were seen as “trying to destroy our province.”

The irony was that the petroleum industry itself was generally becoming more environmentally aware, partly because of federal regulations and partly because it sought to tidy up its dirty image.

After a 44-year reign, the Progressive Conservatives were tossed from power and replaced in 2015 by the current NDP government. The NDP assumed power at a time when oil prices were at their lowest level in decades and unemployment was high. 

The NDP had its own narrative. But with political power, you only control the government, not people’s minds and not broader economic realities.

The NDP has promoted a shift to green energy, a move which has included a controversial carbon tax, and has shied away from advocacy of major pipeline development, such as the ill-fated Keystone XL to the United States. However, in a search for non-U.S. markets for Alberta oil, the NDP government has unswervingly championed the Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline to the west coast.

Support for Trans-Mountain has become Alberta dogma. No discussion of alternatives is seen on the opinion pages of the province’s daily newspapers and there is no discussion of the wisdom of continuing to put all of the province’s economic eggs in the petroleum basket even though the global oil industry appears about to go into steep decline.

When that decline happens and when Alberta suffers the inevitable economic shrivelling of a one-industry province, the blaming will likely reach fever pitch. Instead of looking at its own failure to expand the economic narrative as Lougheed urged, “enemies” such as environmentalists and First Nations will take the heat for bringing an end to “progress.”

Coincidentally, the NDP election victory occurred less than two weeks before Pope Francis signed his encyclical, Laudato Si’. The Pope began the encyclical by stating, “We have come to see ourselves as (Mother Earth’s) lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” The Pope urgently appealed for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” (14)

In Alberta, the dialogue is not happening. The announcement that the University of Alberta will grant an honorary degree to David Suzuki, a controversial figure to be sure, has led not to dialogue, but to angry recriminations of the university. 

In Alberta, the mindset of petroleum as the only path of development is thoroughly entrenched. It will be a path to be blindly followed until one day the path will come not-so-shockingly to a dead end.

(Argan lives in Edmonton and is the interim editor of Living with Christ.)

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