Albertan Officials Are Using Orwellian Methods to Protect Oil and Gas
As its energy industry comes under threat, the oil-rich province is taking aim at environmental activists.
Jason Kenney, the premier of the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta, went before the press in late March to announce a hefty new round of investment in the planned Keystone XL pipeline. The announcement brought to mind a saying from the fantasy world of Game of Thrones: “What is dead may never die.”
The Keystone XL pipeline, planned by the Canadian pipeline operator TC Energy and meant to transport crude oil from Canada to the United States, has already died more than one death. The 1,200 miles of pipe infrastructure were staunchly opposed by the Barack Obama administration, and after much debate in both countries, the former U.S. president cited the need for climate policy leadership when he rejected the project in 2015.
Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Keystone XL has been resurrected. “Today, Alberta is taking control of its economic destiny,” said Kenney as he announced the investment of $1.1 billion to begin construction. That investment is paired with a $4.2 billion loan guarantee from the Alberta government.
The move came more than three years after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing Obama’s veto of the project. The largesse also came the same week that the provincial government laid off more than 20,000 staff in Alberta’s public schools, supposedly necessary to raise some $91 million for the province’s coronavirus response.
Kenney defended the timing of the investment, claiming that jobs in energy and construction would be lost if the government didn’t act now. But this happened as the price for Canadian crude oil traded at an all-time low of less than $5 per barrel—before dropping even lower and trading below zero for the first time in history in April. (This meant that producers had to pay customers to take the unwanted oil off their hands.) So the continued faith in oil and gas to provide jobs to Albertans seems like a risky bet in a time of great uncertainty. “Now is not the time to be further betting on the ongoing expansion of an industry that must become smaller to ensure a climate-safe future,” said Julia Levin, the climate and energy program manager for Environmental Defence, a Canadian NGO.
At a press conference on April 24, reporters asked Kenney at what point he would consider transitioning away from the province’s reliance on oil and gas and whether he was considering a Green New Deal like other governments around the world. “Our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta, not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes,” he said. “We are actually not trying to amplify but fight back against the political agenda of the green left. … So we’re not going to cooperate with the folks that are trying to shut down Canada’s single largest subsector.”
But the seeds of this stance were planted even before Kenney took office, and the provincial government has always seemed guided by one mindset: oil and gas or bust.
Ed Whittingham, a clean energy consultant in Canmore, Alberta, remembers being dragged into Alberta’s energy politics for the first time in 2019. He had just received an appointment to the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator, the public body that regulates energy development in Canada’s oil and gas heartland. He’d previously been the director of the Pembina Institute, an energy policy think tank labeled an enemy of industry by conservatives—even though the institute describes itself as being “staunchly nonpartisan.”
Whittingham is an advocate for clean energy but has also backed the continued development of oil and gas infrastructure in cases where he felt the benefits outweighed the costs. That didn’t keep him from coming into the sights of a right-wing media outlet, Rebel News. “[They] portrayed me as Satan incarnate,” Whittingham told Foreign Policy. “‘He’s anti-Alberta. He’s anti-oil and gas.’”
Soon after that article was published, the provincial election campaign began. It was primarily a contest between incumbent Premier Rachel Notley of the left-of-center New Democratic Party and Kenney, a former federal cabinet minister and the leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP).
When the parties released their election platforms, Whittingham was stunned. The UCP’s platform included an official promise: to fire Ed Whittingham. But it wasn’t the prospect of being fired that shocked Whittingham the most; it was that the largest political party in the province would use a civil servant as a punching bag. Whittingham said it was a precedent for what he called “the devolution of our politics.”
Whittingham wasn’t campaigning for or against anyone, and he hadn’t done anything to deliberately insult the UCP or its leader. His expertise in clean energy technology was enough of an offense.
Shortly after the UCP’s landslide victory, Whittingham resigned his board seat before he could be fired.
The new government unveiled another of its campaign promises: a publicly funded “war room”—since rebranded the Canadian Energy Centre—to influence the public debate on energy. The body’s purpose, according to its director, Tom Olsen, is “refuting and rebutting falsehoods while proactively creating a new Canadian energy narrative in Alberta, in Canada, and around the world.”
The war room is decidedly pro-oil and costs the Alberta government some $21 million annually, though the budget has been trimmed since the start of the pandemic. It became embroiled in controversy in early February, after the New York Times published an article about how some of the world’s biggest financial institutions were divesting from companies involved in Canadian oil sands, the main source for oil production in Alberta and considered especially environmentally destructive. Olsen lashed out at the Times on Twitter, questioning its credibility as a news source, calling it “dodgy,” and saying the outlet had been accused on multiple occasions of anti-Semitism. He later deleted the tweets and issued an online apology, but the outburst demonstrated the approach the war room is ready to take when it comes to criticism of Alberta’s oil and gas sector.
The organization primarily works as an online cheerleader for the oil and gas industry. It actively greenwashes the role Canadian energy corporations play in climate change by promoting stories that shed a positive light on their green initiatives. It also focuses on cleaning up the industry’s poor reputation by working with indigenous communities and amplifying indigenous voices that are in favor of developing oil and gas infrastructure.
While this is happening, the Kenney government has also allotted more than $7 million annually to support indigenous groups in favor of oil and gas that are taking legal action against opponents of energy projects—even if the opponents are other indigenous groups.
These moves sparked concern among activists, including Alex Neve, the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. He worries that those who oppose oil and gas development in Alberta are facing intimidation by the government.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Neve said he was particularly concerned about the government’s use of social media. If someone is targeted by political leaders, he said, the public will take similar action against them and other targets, especially when the targets are historically marginalized groups like women and indigenous people. “Governments … create the sense of permission as to what’s in play and what’s not in play,” Neve said. “At a minimum, we should never see or hear anything from political leaders which gives a nod and a wink that it’s somehow open season on human rights defenders, that they deserve to be attacked and criticized.”
Kenney dismissed Neve’s concerns, writing a harsh response in the National Post. “I understand it must be hard for you,” he wrote. “When you look around the world and see the rise of authoritarian governments, civil war, human trafficking, genocide, and other gross violations of human rights, it must be a tall order to find something, anything to denounce here in our gelid but placid Dominion.”
Neve said the premier’s response only deepened his concerns. But the provincial government has justified these tactics as its “fight back strategy” against what it says is an ongoing, coordinated attack on Alberta’s energy resources—mainly by foreign donors with interests in sidelining Canadian production. In his 2019 election victory speech, Kenney blamed opposition against energy development on “foreign-funded special interests,” which he said were “leading a campaign of economic sabotage against this great province.”
Kenney’s rhetoric and Orwellian methods seem to be working. The threat of outsiders meddling in provincial affairs, real or imagined, has united Albertans behind the government’s strategy of supporting oil and gas development at all costs.