Party Politics

The oil sands province of Alberta: Where extreme weather meets extreme politics

The polit­i­cal cli­mate of Canada’s oil pro­duc­ing province is being upstaged by Moth­er Nature. Pro­longed heat and light­ning have pro­duced a nat­ur­al cli­mate emer­gency with fires black­en­ing the skies and con­sum­ing more than 2.3 mil­lion acres in a not-so-mer­ry month of May.

“Alber­ta is on fire,” pro­claimed the Mon­day, Vic­to­ria Day head­line on Glob­al TV’s web­site. Eighty-three wild­fires were burn­ing across the prairie province, 80 of them in for­est pro­tec­tion areas. Twen­ty-two fires were out of control.

Bre Hutchin­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor, Alber­ta Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, and Christie Tuck­er, infor­ma­tion unit man­ag­er, Alber­ta Wild­fire, pro­vid­ed an update, from Edmon­ton on Wednes­day, May 24, 2023, on the Alber­ta wild­fire sit­u­a­tion. (Pho­to: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alber­ta, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Dur­ing three weeks of fires, near­ly 30,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed from their homes, with near­ly 11,000 cur­rent­ly wait­ing for per­mis­sion to return and see if hous­es and trail­ers are still intact.

The bore­al forests of cen­tral and north­ern Alber­ta and British Colum­bia are burn­ing. Con­se­quences of cli­mate dam­age, which is warm­ing the plan­et, have hit cen­ters of Canada’s fos­sil fuel econ­o­my — pri­mar­i­ly Alberta’s oil sands coun­try. Wild­fire sea­sons have length­ened, notably hot dry springs, and fires burn with greater intensity.

In 2016, a fire roared out of forests to burn part of the “oil patch” city of Fort McMur­ray in what John Val­liant, author of the book “Fire Weath­er: The Mak­ing of a Beast,” describes as “the largest, most rapid dis­place­ment of peo­ple because of fire in mod­ern times – any­where on earth… The Fort McMur­ray fire grew so big, so fast it over­ran the city in an after­noon and gen­er­at­ed its own stratos­pher­ic storm sys­tem in what had been a blue­bird Alber­ta day.”

The fires this year have spread thick smoke over Alber­ta and come to cov­er most of the rest of Cana­da. Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmon­ton and Cal­gary, are present­ly suf­fer­ing the world’s worst air quality.

Edmon­ton res­i­dents have been told to avoid being outside.

Beneath the so-called Omega Block – high pres­sure that is caus­ing heat and gen­er­at­ing fires — Alber­ta is feel­ing the heat of a con­se­quen­tial provin­cial elec­tion cam­paign. News orga­ni­za­tions are car­ry­ing instruc­tions on how evac­uees and fight­ers on the fire lines can vote in advance of the May 29th elec­tion date.

Alber­ta has often been called the Texas of Cana­da. The two locales bear marked sim­i­lar­i­ties in oil patch economies as well as attitude.

Both have also expe­ri­enced, of late, tem­per­a­ture extremes, fire and drought.

Pre­mier Danielle Smith attend­ed the Cen­tral Alber­ta Chris­t­ian May­ors’ Prayer Break­fast in Red Deer on Thurs­day, April 20, 2023. (Pho­to: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alber­ta, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Alber­tans and their provin­cial gov­ern­ment have spent the last few decades rail­ing against poli­cies com­ing out of Canada’s nation­al cap­i­tal, tax­a­tion of the oil indus­try in the 1970s and 80s, and mea­sures tak­en to counter cli­mate change in the present century.

“It’s not like Ottawa is a nation­al gov­ern­ment: The way our coun­try works is that we are a fed­er­a­tion of sov­er­eign, inde­pen­dent juris­dic­tions,” Pre­mier Danielle Smith told her leg­is­la­ture late last year, as it passed some­thing called the Alber­ta Sov­er­eign­ty With­in a Unit­ed Cana­da Act.

The act sets the stage for Alber­ta to pos­si­bly dis­re­gard fed­er­al laws or reg­u­la­tions if its provin­cial leg­is­la­ture deter­mines those laws do harm to the province’s inter­ests or if leg­is­la­tors con­sid­er it con­sti­tu­tion­al overreach.

The dean of Uni­ver­si­ty of Calgary’s law school, Ian Hol­loway, minced no words describ­ing the leg­is­la­tion: “This is about as clear­ly an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al gam­bit as I’ve ever seen in my pro­fes­sion­al life­time: The pre­mier is engag­ing in a game of polit­i­cal chicken.”

Alberta’s polit­i­cal cli­mate has tracked Texas.

A busi­ness-dom­i­nat­ed con­ser­vatism, pre­vail­ing for more than forty years, has giv­en way to con­fronta­tion­al, tumul­tuous pol­i­tics of the far right.

The province has been epi­cen­ter to resis­tance against COVID-19 restric­tions and mask man­dates, and a hotbed for anti-vaxxers. Alber­ta has churned through eight pre­miers since 2004, only one of whom has fin­ished his or her term.

Last spring, a no-con­fi­dence vote in the gov­ern­ing Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty pushed out Pre­mier Jason Ken­ney.

Ken­ney was a for­mer fed­er­al cab­i­net min­is­ter and friend of busi­ness. He led his par­ty to a con­vinc­ing vic­to­ry in 2019, only to face a rebel­lion by his party’s base that his poli­cies weren’t con­fronta­tion­al enough. Leaked con­ver­sa­tions quot­ed Ken­ney describ­ing crit­ics in his par­ty as “lunatics… try­ing to take over the asy­lum.” Vot­ing for a new leader, par­ty activists picked Danielle Smith, a radio talk show host fond of rail­ing against “the mob of polit­i­cal correctness.”

Jason Ken­ney, for­mer Pre­mier of Alber­ta (Pho­to: Gov­ern­ment of Alberta)

Ken­ney quit his seat in the Alber­ta Leg­is­la­ture as Smith assumed pow­er. He deliv­ered a part­ing state­ment decry­ing polit­i­cal extremes left and right, and warn­ing: “From the far right we see a venge­ful anger and tox­ic cyn­i­cism which often seeks to tear things down rather than build up and improve our imper­fect institutions.”

The lat­est polls show a tight race between the Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tives and oppo­si­tion left-lean­ing New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, led by for­mer Pre­mier Rachel Not­ley. The New Democ­rats under Not­ley gov­erned the province from 2015 to 2019, the sin­gle break in fifty-five years of con­ser­v­a­tive rule. They intro­duced a car­bon tax over furi­ous oppo­si­tion from the right.

Smith used her radio show to rail against the fed­er­al government’s COVID-19 restric­tions and vac­cine mandates.

As pre­mier, she has also tak­en aim at reg­u­la­tion of the oil and gas indus­try. Alber­ta sent its own sep­a­rate del­e­ga­tion to the recent COPT 27 Cli­mate Con­fer­ence in Egypt as a ges­ture of no-con­fi­dence in Canada’s fed­er­al envi­ron­ment min­is­ter. “He clear­ly is hos­tile to our oil and gas sec­tor: He’s clear­ly try­ing to step into areas he’s got no busi­ness reg­u­lat­ing,” said Pre­mier Smith.

An increas­ing num­ber of Alber­tans are final­ly get­ting enough of the excess­es of ener­gy devel­op­ment. The rul­ing Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tives faced a furi­ous back­lash when they tried to ease reg­u­la­tion of open pit min­ing on the east slopes of the Cana­di­an Rock­ies. Sim­i­lar reac­tion has blocked efforts to “remove” provin­cial parks. One provin­cial poll showed two-thirds sup­port for set­ting a nation­al goal of zero net emis­sions by 2050.

Rachel Not­ley, Alber­ta’s pre­mier from 2015–2019, is shown at an NDP cam­paign ral­ly (Pho­to: Don Voak­lan­der, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

The New Democ­rats are run­ning on tra­di­tion­al good gov­ern­ment issues.

They’re pledg­ing to increase cor­po­rate tax­es, gen­er­at­ing rev­enue that would go to improve edu­ca­tion. They promise a per­ma­nent ban on coal min­ing in the Rockies.

Not­ley has pledged repeal of “this hor­ri­ble” Sov­er­eign­ty Act, deem­ing it a threat to new invest­ment in the province.

The Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tives are play­ing the oil card, warn­ing that the New Democ­rats would cap oil and gas emis­sions – the indus­try is a big pol­luter – and stymie oppor­tu­ni­ties to increase pro­duc­tion in the oil sands of north­ern Alberta.

As they make their way to polls through the smoke, how­ev­er, Alber­tan face a choice not dis­sim­i­lar to some U.S. states with ultra MAGA Repub­li­cans top­ping the bal­lot: Do they want to fan the fires of right wing pop­ulism with a con­fronta­tion-prone gov­ern­ment and pre­mier? Do they want to bring cul­ture wars to Cana­da? One Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­date has com­pared trans­gen­der chil­dren in schools to feces in cookies.

“I know, Ms. Smith, you’re keen on fight­ing,” Not­ley told her oppo­nent in their one head-on-head TV debate. “You want to fight with Ottawa. You want to fight with the media. You want to fight, fre­quent­ly, with your for­mer self. It’s actu­al­ly quite exhaust­ing… Every day is a new dra­ma. You (mean­ing, the vot­ers of Alber­ta) just don’t need to put up with this.”

Rain this week has briefly damp­ened Alberta’s fires.

We’ll see next week if the polit­i­cal land­scape has a fiery future.

Edi­tor’s Note: Cross-post­ed to PostAl­ley Seattle. 

Joel Connelly

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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