Alberta's NDP, the Oil industry, and the Fate of the Planet
May 8, 2015
Alberta's NDP, the Oil industry, and the Fate of the Planet
Will an orange oilpatch crush climate hopes, or facilitate a green shift?
In 2001, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein got drunk and told his chauffeur to drive him to a homeless shelter. He proceeded to berate the people who were there, yelling at them to "get a job". The encounter ended with the inebriated Klein throwing money on the floor while venting his disgust with the homeless people (some of whom turned out to be employed but unable to access housing in an overheated and unregulated Edmonton economy).
In 2004, Klein and his PC party won a 62-seat majority in the Alberta legislature. Rather than being the nail in the coffin of a cruel and morally bankrupt political ideology, Klein's visit to the shelter became the stuff of political legend, cementing Alberta's self-image as the radical champion of individualism, the free market, and total alignment with the oil industry.
All that is to say that when Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party took 40 per cent of the vote and 54 seats, it signalled a major shift in Alberta's self image.
Alberta is the kind of place where you don't have to listen to the radio for more than a few minutes to hear something that could be, and probably is, a press release from the Canadian taxpayer's federation. The province's media, culture and waiting rooms of dentist's offices are more saturated with US-style right-wing propaganda than any other place in Canada I've been.
And yet, the major planks of Notley's campaign were raising corporate taxes, reviewing the (obscenely low) royalties oil companies pay the province, and stopping cuts to social services. Even if one thinks that those fall short of what's needed, they unquestionably fly in the face of the prevailing political currents.
No one believed that the NDP's electoral victory in Alberta was possible until the final results finally came in for a reason: it's a totally unlikely triumph of a popular sentiment that is deeply incommensurate with the amount of influence corporations and the oil patch have over the Albertan psyche. It's a slap in the face to the oil industry's puppet oligarchy and, on a relative scale, a radical opening of political possibilities.
It's potent stuff, but we shouldn't inhale too much too quick.
Alberta sits on a 168 billion-barrel proven reserve of oil, and estimates put the total amount of oil in the province's tar sands as high as a mind-boggling 2.5 trillion barrels. They come in third after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
And in the words of climate scientist James Hansen, using the oil that's left in Alberta's tar sands means "game over for the climate." In this case, game over means rendering large parts of the planet uninhabitable by humans, and losing a significant fraction of the earth's species.
Now's a good time to mention that according to on recent poll, 26 percent of Albertans think that climate change is a hoax. (But not all Albertans.) Some of these deniers are in prominent positions, like former Wild Rose leader Danielle Smith. Beyond the 26 percent, many more are in see-no-evil mode about the consequences of burning those billions or trillions of barrels of oil. We can make it more sustainable, the oil companies say. Yes we can, say many people whose economic existence depends on that illusion. Denial is not a river in Egypt but it is, in a very real way, a cornerstone of Alberta's economy.
Notley, whose charisma, charm, and folksy Alberta-uber-alles rhetoric deserve a share of credit for her party's stunning win (along with the timing of her ascent and the PC meltdown), probably reached the peak of her boldness when she mentioned renewables and the oilpatch in the same breath in her victory speech. Since the election, she has worked to put to bed any notions of antagonism with Alberta's economic overlords.
“They can count on us to work collaboratively with them and I’m hopeful that over the course of the next two weeks they will come to realize that things are going to be just A-OK over here in Alberta,” Notley said in a post-election press conference.
But if the NDP comes to be dominated by the oil industry in the same way that the PCs were, it might not be the worst outcome.
If the industry makes enough concessions to look like it's reforming, and the charming Notley becomes the new face of a superficially changed industry, it could make phasing out oil even more difficult. Foundation-funded environmental groups have been eyeing that kind of scenario for years, angling to make a deal with the oil industry in the template of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) -- which turned out to be a sham on many levels.
The CBFA maintained the same rate of logging, while declaring that an area the size of Germany had been "saved". An agreement with the oil industry would divide the environmental movement by pitting people who want to act in accordance with the science against prominent green NGOs who accept an "environmentally friendly" version of oil extraction.
The rise of a grassroots-powered climate justice movement has done much to dampen this dream of a sustainable-looking oil industry backed by prominent NGOs, but the NDP could breath new life into it.
It's not a perfect analogy, but let's say Jim Prentice is to oil what George Bush was to the Iraq war. Will Rachel Notley do to environmentalism what Obama did for the anti-war movement? Which is to say, will she make it dwindle to the point of irrelevance? It's only one of many possibilities, but it's far from being off the table. And it may be far more appealing to the NDP than going toe to toe with a powerful, profitable, and ruthless industry.
So what forces will be available to – not to put too fine a point on it – save the planet from losing half of its species and most of its human population?
By virtue of appearing to be "in power," the NDP is looking like the best game in town to many progressives. For many in Alberta the NDP is the political force with the most scale and possibility. But the needs of the planet are defined in absolute terms.
The stakes are even higher with the NDP in power, and progressives will have to raise their strategic thinking and coordination to new levels of precision and sophistication. Currently, the NDP is ill-equipped to take on Alberta's defining industry alone. It has no substantial, active base of support to back it up if it confronts the oilpatch.
And building such a base will seem unrealistic and fanciful to the seasoned advisors that have been brought in from middle-of-the-road NDP governments. In nondescript Edmonton conference rooms, NDP strategists are ruling out confrontation as a possibility right now.
If not the NDP, then who? We're back to the strategy that numerous NDP governments, as well as those who have poured tens of millions into environmental NGOs, have rejected: grassroots base-building.
The post-election moment represents a brief but potent window of opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of Albertans have defied the oil industry and the corporate class. They are paying attention, and waiting to see what will happen. There is an opportunity to solidify that declaration of independence, but there is also the danger of a timid NDP more tightly binding the fate of Albertans with that of the oil industry.
It's hard to know who can take up the community organizing torch and run with it, but the opportunity is there. It's really a question of what substantial network can muster sufficient mental independence from the NDP to strike out with a strategy that might make the work of NDP more difficult by undermining efforts to make nice with industry, but would open the window of political possibility wider.
Rank and File has already proposed a push on the $15 minimum wage. If the NDP puts transparency measures in place and commissions proper health studies in the tar sands (they may need some encouragement), then there will be opportunities to reveal more of the true costs of an oil-based economy. Alberta's Indigenous nations are -- understandably -- likely to take a cautious approach to the new government, but they are perhaps better placed than any other social force to catalyze a different approach to Industry.
But before a strategy is chosen, a more fundamental need presents itself: a way to make strategic decisions that is independent of the NDP. There are many precedents for this, from anti-austerity assemblies to climate camps. If there's going to be a real challenge to the oil industry, it will be because there was a space where organizers got together to do something they haven't done very often: decide, strategize, coordinate and scale up.
I won't say the fate of the planet rests in the hands of Alberta's grassroots organizers, but let's just say they are better positioned than anyone else in Canada to make a real difference right now. No pressure!