In Alberta, Pigs Do Fly

The Canadian Province of Alberta has been likened to the American State of Texas. Energy and cattle, energy barons and cowboys. But with mountains.

Yesterday a relatively liberal party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), won a surprise victory in the provincial election, ousting the 44 year long reign of the Progressive Conservatives. From an American point of view, this is all very confusing because the Canadian political system is very different. Alberta has a Premier, and the premier will step down because of this election. The NDP formerly never held very many seats in the legislature, but now holds 55 out of 87, with the Progressive Conservatives ending up with an anemic 11.

This is relevant to topics often discussed here because Alberta is where the famous Canadian Tar Sands, the bitumen from which would be carried on the famous Keystone XL Pipeline through the United States to points unknown, rest. This raises two questions. First, did the left-leaning victory arise in part (small or large) from the fight over tar sands exploitation? Second, will this change in government influence the future exploitation of this relatively dirty source of Carbon-based fossil fuel?

People vote for a range of reasons. When a large and unexpected shift happens, in American politics, it is more often than not (IMHO) because voters are upset with those in power, and are "throwing the bums out." I think it is much more rare to see a smaller coalition blossom into a majority over issues pushed by that coalition. Also, even though the NDP is left leaning, just how "left" (meaning, in the context of these major issues, Climate Hawkish) are they? All you Canadian Politics experts need to provide your analysis in the comments below. I'm especially interested in John Irving's analysis. (John?)

It is said that this is like a Democratic sweep/Republican trounce in Texas. Is it? Will it last? Is this a game-changer, a sea change? Some other appropriate Canadian metaphor? (Ice-out? Turning of the maple leaf?)

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It is said that this is like a Democratic sweep/Republican trounce in Texas.

Er, if Democrats were "left" then I suppose the analogy would work. I would perhaps be more like the USA Green Party taking over Texas.

On an amusing note, I see that the Heartland Institute Church is advertising on your web site (top adsense banner). I was so intrigued that I clicked on the advert and the first think the "think tank" told me is that they are not funded by the Koch brothers. This is excellent news: it shows how effective it has been to reveal denialist's funding.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Greg, I think in this case there really is a feeling of "throw the bums out" although it hasn't been expressed that strongly in the media. Some of my oil industry friends are talking about moving back to the 3rd World "even with the corruption" because they believe their own reactionary BS.

In the USA it seems like the bums never get thrown out, even with "approval ratings" of 7% or less.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

In reply to by GregH (not verified)

I think it's important to keep in mind that this massive change in government was the result, as is typical in Canada, of a modest shift in partisan preferences. In this case, right- leaning parties went from 64% to 53%. Alberta is still a conservative province and it is only because the right split its vote between two parties with virtually identical ideologies that the leftish NDP was able to grab so many seats.

By James Hrynyshyn (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

James, thanks for that perspective. In the USA, when it comes to political parties, we can't count past 2. So we don't understand!

Good point James (#4) - because we have more than a two party system it is much easier for an election to take a dramatic swing like this with just a small change in attitude. Small c conservatives have been in power in alberta since the Socreds won in 1935 under William Aberhart (an evangelical preacher) followed by Ernest Manning (Preston Manning's father) the Peter Lougheed. At 65+ years of age this is the first non-conservative government I've ever seen in AB (I'm next door in BC).

Greg - the NDP, at the Federal level, have become more centrist since Jack Layton died. That's a shame. I'm not going to count on them being very progressive. However Rachel Notley who just won in AB has been compared to Layton a few times, and she has a fairly activist past, particularly in labour law, so she'll roll as leader will be interesting to say the least.

This year will also see a Federal election and AB has been the Conservative party's base for ever. Stephen Harper arose out of the Reform Party movement started by Preston Manning. If this switch in AB eats away a bit at the Conservative Party's support in AB come November then there is an even better chance than now that Harper will not form a majority government and may not even have a minority. That will put the brakes on oil pipeline progress.

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

James' comment, I think, covers it. When the NDP came on strong just after Jack Layton's death, it siphoned off a lot of the votes the Liberals would normally have taken. As a result, the Conservatives managed to get a majority even though they received a low percentage of votes (around 35%+). Without that strong NDP showing the Liberals would likely have formed the federal government. Who knows what they would have done, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be removing numerous environmental protections, closing down fisheries. freshwater lakes, and Arctic research labs, shuttering libraries, firing whole departments of scientists, including some at stats Canada, who might give them inconvenient truths.....etc etc long long long list etc....

By Dan Andrews (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Though the SoCreds were socially conservative and even racist (we Canadian Jews were a bit scared of them back in the day) their core policy was both immensely progressive and is something worth reviving now that machines are taking all the jobs - a universal non-means-tested income.

As for the NDP, as long as you're focused on a one-dimensional spectrum, they used to be quite explicitly socialist and still run to the left of the Liberals who are in turn to the left of the US Dems.

But as I understand it, at present no Canadian party except the Greens opposes tar sands development. Canada is no more likely to vote against its own short term interests any more than anyone else will.

Another thing Americans don't understand about Canada is how volatile the situation is in Canada with wild swings in the dollar to $CDN ratio, and other US-Canada relations completely off the radar of the US public and the almost equally indifferent US policy sector.

(If you really want to take an interest in Canada, btw, the $CDN is pronounced "loonie".)

By Michael Tobis (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Greg, first of all check your numbers - I think the Progressive Conservatives only won 10 seats. Also Premier Prentice resigned last night on the spot when the scale of the defeat became evident.

It’s hard to know where to begin here. Although the polls had been indicating a similar outcome there have been other situations in Canadian politics where the election outcome dramatically defied the polls. Everyone, myself included, is describing this as a stunning result - even pundits, journalists and political commentators. This was not even considered possible a mere month ago. So there will be a tremendous amount of analysis about this that will no doubt go on for some time.

The CBC’s Kathleen Petty has a good overview of the background here:

NDP's Alberta win a different kind of 'miracle on the Prairies'…

In terms of what this means for the Alberta tar sands and Canada in general it’s too soon to know. In her victory speech last night Rachel Notley stated she is looking forward to working with the other premiers and Prime Minister Harper on a range of issues "including the need for a national approach to the environment and to Canada's energy sector, that builds bridges and opens markets -- instead of giving us a black eye.”

She has also been promoting refining bitumen in Alberta rather than exporting raw bitumen to be refined elsewhere as is done presently. This is a popular idea in Alberta but refineries cost many billions of dollars to build (though I’d argue that those billions would go directly into the Alberta economy and create a lot of jobs). She has also expressed an interest in revisiting the tar sands royalty program and possibly raising royalties.

Many comparisons have been made between Alberta and Norway which has stashed away almost a trillion dollars in its sovereign wealth fund from its oil resources. Meanwhile due to the roughly 50% recent decline in the price of oil Alberta will be running a deficit in the vicinity of $5-billion over the next year alone. Alberta also has the lowest provincial tax regime of any Canadian province. How Notley manages these fiscal challenges will be key to whether this dramatic turn of fortune is an anomaly or not.

Importantly Alberta is the home base of Prime Minister Harper. Considering we have a federal election coming up in October no doubt this historic turn of events has broader implications. As I mentioned Notley has indicated the need for “a national approach to the environment” which is at odds with Harper’s long history of demonizing such things as a “job killing carbon tax” or federal CHG policies. Harper also rejects raising taxes and favours lowering corporate taxes and the (voodoo) trickle down economic approach. Again this contradicts NDP philosophy in general but provincial NDP governments are typically more autonomous than the federal variety.

Despite the disgraceful lack of environmental action on the part of the federal government under Harper - Canada follows only Australia in being a climate change laggard and obstructionist - Canadian provinces such as British Columbia (with its successful carbon tax program), Quebec and more recently Ontario (with their cap and trade program aligned with California) have stepped up to the plate. As of Ontario’s involvement roughly 80% of the Canadian economy will be covered by some form of carbon pricing. Alberta has a $15 tonne price on emissions but due to the way it’s structured and applied (when it’s applied) it’s rather inconsequential in its impact.

Notley seems to recognize that much of the opposition to the tar sands and their ability to export bitumen is related to the obstructionist and do-nothing policies relating to GHG’s - and she’s not alone in thinking this. There has also been significant resistance from first nations groups whose land often contains resources or must be crossed in order to export them. The federal government under Harper has taken a combative approach to relations with first nations and environmentalists about such matters further entrenching such resistance. In her speech last night Notley stated, in addition to the need to diversify the provincial economy, "To Alberta’s Indigenous peoples: the trust we have been given tonight is a call to be better neighbours and partners. I’m looking forward to consulting with you and learning from you.”

As I’m attempting to demonstrate the approach of the federal government under Harper appears to be becoming increasingly isolated. Having the most conservative province, an unassailable bastion of conservative politics for 44 straight years, and the one with dramatically increasing GHG emissions while other provinces emissions are declining, completely flip politically overnight is an absolutely stunning development. It’s too soon to speculate on how this will impact the October federal election but I’m inclined to think it may have significant implications. I’m sure all three of the federal parties (Conservatives, Liberals and NDP) were as stunned as anyone. Recent polling has shown the Conservatives with a slight lead followed by the Liberals closely behind and the NDP in 3rd. It will be fascinating to watch what happens following last nights historic outcome in Alberta. It very well could be a game changing event for the country - or at least be the catalyst of one,

Rachel Notley’s brilliant victory speech can be seen here:…

By John Irving (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

The best news here is that this will certainly shake up the complacent petrostate-like establishment in Alberta, in which the government and its regulatory (regular Tory?) boards were seen as an extension of corporate management.

Rachel Notley faces a huge struggle in managing the economy in Alberta and, unless oil prices go back up quickly and stay there, she will face some very tough decisions about which group of voters she wants to offend most--her core supporters or the recent defectors from the Conservative party. The good news for her is that the right-wing parties are divided and lack leadership and it will likely take more than an electoral cycle to get their mojo back.

By Andy Skuce (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Andy Skuce, that's a very good summary, thanks. I was wondering about Prentice's dilemma last night after reading the news, but I didn't think he'd solve it by (metaphorically) giving us all the finger and leaving the stage.

I'm not worried about the right-wing parties - they've still got the Manning Centre for Democracy and the Fraser Institute to shill for corporate interests.

Living in Edmonton I think the election result was due to a few things.

First the PCs tried to shift slightly left a few years back and the Wildrose party popped up on their right flank. Wildrose got a strong base very quickly but tended to falter in elections as people associated them with Tea Party types from the US and got very skittish. Wildrose also had a very similar platform to the PCs so their main selling point PC policies without the PC dynasty.

Then in December 2014 nine Wildrose MLAs, including their leader who had brought the party to prominence, crossed the floor to join the PCs. Partly because they figured the platforms were the same but also because they were uneasy with the far right elements in the party base, for instance at the general meeting a resolution to adopt an anti-discrimination resolution was defeated.

People did not like the floor crossings and were mad at the PCs, but Prentice decided to call an election because the Wildrose was reeling, no one would vote Liberal or NDP, and in general no one outside the PCs were prepared for an election...

Wildrose recovered their support fairly quickly though was still hampered by the same Tea Party association problem. Their leader also had a brutal debate where he afterwards admitted that he was just trying to repeat soundbites. The NDP leader did great.

The PCs were also dogged by a series of minor scandals, weird handouts to a golf course, dubious attempts to hand riding nominations to the now unpopular Wildrose floor crossers, a justice minister who got hit with a restraining order from his ex-wife, and anger over his scheming with orchestrating the floor crossing then calling an early election (there are supposed to be fixed election dates).

Essentially people were really mad at the PCs, freaked out by Wildrose, and the NDP seemed pretty cool and rational.

As for things like Keystone it's uncertain, in general I feel like Albertans support it because it would be a lot of money and people generally support things that give them lots of money.

Notley has said she's against it though it was fairly muted and I'm not sure how far she'd take that opposition.

By Aaron Luchko (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

I don't think Notley is against KXL or Northern Gateway, she simply decided to focus government lobbying on the two big projects the Alberta government has influence over and that stand a chance of being approved: TransMountain and Energy East.

A Premier of Alberta simply cannot be anti-oilsands. In fact, her more moderate advocacy and openness on talking about emissions reduction may even reduce polarization and help the pipeline projects along.

By Andy Skuce (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

There are no "tar sands" in Alberta, just oil sands, or to be more exact, bitumen sands (not tar). Oil Sands oil is only about 4% "dirtier" than other oil. US coal burning has a GHG impact that is FAR greater. And if oil doesn't ship by pipelines, then it goes by rail, which is much more dangerous, costly, bigger carbon footprint, etc.

By David Clark (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

David (#16) Unless of course you build a refinery in AB in which case problem solved for transporting dilbit by pipeline (well except for inside the province) - The provincial government should build the refinery and take a cut of the profits - they do not come anywhere near extracting enough value for the province out of that resource.

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

David (#16),

My understanding is that yes, per unit of oil a pipeline is by far the most efficient way to transport it, but creating a pipeline means that far more of the oil gets extracted and shipped, thus raising the total environmental impact.

I'm skeptical that the oil sands only 4% dirtier as my understanding has been that the process is much more energy intensive than conventional oil.

Doug, the refinery idea has always struck me as a logical one, which raises the question of why it hasn't been done already.

By Aaron Luchko (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Sorry David, but those deposits have long been called tar sands. Calling them oil sands is an oil industry PR effort.

By Chakat Firepaw (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Bitumen is cooked with copious amounts of natural gas, and becomes a viscous synthetic petroleum. For transport it is diluted with condensates and called diluted bitumen, or dilbit, which is hotter and more difficult to transport by either method than ordinary crude. After making it to US processing plants, roughly 15% of dilbit ends up as a petroleum coke byproduct. ‘Pet coke’ is like a charcoal containing heavy metals, sulphur and other impurities removed from dilbit during the coking part of the refining process. As an alternative fuel in coal-fired powerplants, pet coke produces 5 – 10% more greenhouse gases than coal.

Pet Coke should be called Pet Koch, because the largest US sellers are Koch Carbon, owned by Charles and David Koch, and Oxbow Corporation, owned by William I Koch. Pet coke is often sold to Asian and South American firms for energy production.

David (#16):

"On a lifetime basis, a gallon of gasoline made from tar sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional oil."…


I will continue to refer to the tar sands using the original term, the one the industry tried to disappear for PR reasons to make them sound cleaner, and encourage others to do likewise:

"Engineers, geologists, and rig workers have always used “tar sands” and “oil sands” interchangeably in the past. Karl Clark, the chemist who discovered how to turn bitumen into synthetic oil, didn’t mind calling them the “tar sands.” Neither did Howard Pew, the Sun Oil boss whose quirky curiosity led to their commercialization. The people of Alberta know and revere these names; they aren’t really as afraid of the T-word as they let on."

Don’t call them ‘tar sands’

The industry-approved lingo for Alberta’s hydrocarbon gunk is ‘oil sands’

By John Irving (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

I've lived in Alberta for 58 years, and we always called them the Tar Sands. I'm pretty sure "Oil Sands" is the product of an oil industry focus group.

Here's a short article about the Koch brothers' presence in Alberta. Very interesting stuff!

As much as I hope this really is indicative of a general leftward shift, much of it might simply be a voter reaction to the bad local economy, and the governments attempts to raise taxes and cut programs to reduce the provincial deficit. Sort of reminds me of when Bush senior's non-new-taxes pledge bit him in 92. The economy (and government revenues) are down because of the oil price drop.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 06 May 2015 #permalink

Greg has one month to persuade Bill Koch to buy out his less intelligent older brothers's Heartland contract, and take over this year's Heartland Special Climate Olympics.

Let the games begin !

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 10 May 2015 #permalink