New UCP Government Could Bolster Alberta Separatism

The NDP has been bounced from power in Alberta. Now the hard part. To get new crude pipeline capacity constructed to tidewater.

A few of Premier-elect Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) proposed policies to move crude pipeline projects forward are excellent, especially those that relate to our Indigenous peoples and the targeting of foreign funders of the so-called tar sands campaign. But, on the whole, Kenney’s more combative “fight back” style and policies are likely to be ineffective, if not downright counterproductive, further enrage Albertans, and bolster the province’s budding separatist movement instead.

But, deep down, Kenney may know this. As a former federal politician he should understand as well as anyone that the pipeline issue is largely out of Alberta’s direct control. The Feds are responsible for regulating cross-border energy infrastructure, hence the Alberta government can no more than encourage and pressure them to move pipeline projects forward.

Also, all three of the crude pipeline projects still on the books — Enbridge’s Line 3 Replacement, the Feds’ Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) and TransCanada’s Keystone XL — have been delayed by regulatory rulings and legal decisions in Canada and the United States at both the national and provincial/state levels, which the Alberta government has no direct control over.

At the same time, Kenney appears every bit as bright as W. Brett Wilson, who has concluded the only real stick Alberta has to move crude pipeline projects forward in Canada is the threat of secession. This may explain the heavy use of separatist rhetoric by Kenney when he announced the UCP’s  “Stand Up for Alberta, A Fair Deal for Alberta” plan in Red Deer on March 23.

During his announcement of the nine-point plan, Kenney highlighted that Albertans have given Canada $611 billion — inflation adjusted dollars — more in federal taxes than they have received in transfers and services since 1961, as calculated by Professor Robert Mansell from the University of Calgary, and a net contribution of $200 billion in the past decade alone.

In addition, Kenney made mention of the fact Quebec Premier François Legault said there is “no social acceptability” for Alberta’s “dirty” oil, just days after Quebec received a $1.3 billion increase in equalization payments, which, of course, come primarily from Alberta.

Finally, Kenney cited the results of a recent Angus Reid Institute poll that found a “shocking” 50 per cent of Albertans said they support secession from Canada. “At the heart of this number lies a real tension that runs through the hearts of many Albertans,” Kenney said, before walking back his separatist rhetoric. “Most Albertans — myself included — are proud Canadians.”

The four most significant UCP fight back policy proposals that are likely to be ineffective or counterproductive at encouraging the Feds and recalcitrant provinces such as B.C. to support new crude pipeline projects to tidewater, are as follows:

Energy war room

A key component of Premier-elect Kenney’s fight back strategy is the establishment of an “Energy War Room” within the Alberta government “to respond in real time to the lies and myths told about Alberta’s energy industry through paid, earned, and social media.”

But according to P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking in their recently released book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, the five basic weapons to win LikeWar are: narrative, emotion, authenticity, community and inundation. They argue virality is inseparable from reality on the Internet, tossing morality and veracity out the window. Just think Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.

Unfortunately, Kenney’s energy war room is based on the flawed premise that “truth” wins in the social media wars —  something the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has also long failed to understand — while it is difficult to see how tweets and posts on social media platforms from the Alberta government will gain virality. They will likely be viewed akin to the “black propaganda” the Soviet Union was infamous for, except among the faithful.

 “The big losers in this narrative battle are those people or institutions that are too big, too slow or too hesitant to weave such stories,” Singer and Brooking warned. “These are not the kind of battles that a plodding, uninventive bureaucracy can win.”

Turn off the taps

On the campaign trail, Premier-elect Kenney said he would proclaim The Preserving Canada’s Economic Prosperity Act, or Bill 12, law on the first day of his premiership, and use the so-called “Turn off the Taps” legislation against B.C. if the province’s government continues to obstruct the construction of the TMX pipeline to the west coast — assuming the B.C. government’s constitutional challenge to the new law fails.

However, bullying tactics such as a ban on crude and petroleum product exports could easily backfire on Alberta, alienating B.C. residents currently supportive of the pipeline expansion, and further radicalize its opponents, making it even less likely for the TMX to be built (see Alberta’s Export Ban A Bad Idea).

And, ironically, after the initial shortages and price spikes, B.C. would have Alberta over the proverbial barrel not the other way around, as we need their market more than they need our crude and refined products. Based on an oil industry analysis, B.C. would be hardest hit in the second to sixth week of a total crude and product ban, with gasoline prices, for example, spiking around 50 cents per litre.

But shortages would subside as Washington State refiners sourced lost Trans Mountain pipeline crude volumes from elsewhere and enterprising arbitragers found ways to profitably move crude and petroleum products from wherever to B.C., mostly through Washington State. By the seventh week of the ban, B.C. residents would likely be paying less than 10 cents per litre more for gasoline, primarily reflecting the higher cost of transportation.

Carbon rollback

Premier-elect Kenney has promised an across the board reversal of the Notley government’s climate change policies — policies that failed to secure social licence for new crude pipeline capacity. These include a rollback of carbon pricing in Alberta, and a requisite lawsuit challenging the Feds’ power to regulate provincial carbon emissions, removal of the cap on oilsands emissions, and an end to coal-fired electricity phase out in the province.

I don’t see how this rollback in Alberta’s climate change policies will be anything but counterproductive at moving new crude pipeline capacity to tidewater forward. The federal government is forecasting carbon emissions at 701 Mt by 2030, well above our Paris target of 512 Mt. Based on present policies, Alberta’s emissions are forecast to be 275 Mt in 2030, easily the most of any province — even more so on a per capita basis.

A federal government led by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer may be willing to walk away from the Paris treaty, but a new Liberal government in October, led by Justin Trudeau or whomever, won’t. More importantly, B.C. and Quebec, the two provinces that have shown the greatest concern about climate change and the greatest willingness to block construction of new crude pipeline capacity to tidewater, won’t forgive Alberta for killing Canada’s Paris commitments.

Anyways, a rollback in carbon pricing will leave Alberta with a greater hole in our provincial budget. Our government needs a more stable flow of revenue than in the past, and we can choose our poison — a carbon tax or a sales tax. I choose the carbon tax because it kills two birds with one stone.

Equalization referendum

Frankly, if I wanted to ramp up separatist sentiment in Alberta, I don’t think I could come up with a better policy than Premier-elect Kenney’s proposed equalization referendum.

Kenney has long said the UCP would hold a referendum on October 18, 2021, asking Albertans if equalization should be removed from the Constitution Act if, in the interim, substantial progress is not made on construction of new crude pipeline capacity to tidewater, and if the Feds’ Bill C-69 does not get quashed.

I have no doubt Albertans would vote to remove equalization from the constitution today, let alone over two years from now, in the face of continuing economic crisis. Based on a recent public opinion survey by the Canada West Foundation, 71 per cent of Albertans believe the province doesn’t get the respect it deserves within Canada, and 68 per cent believe it’s not getting its fair share of federal government spending.

And I have no doubt that the federal government would challenge our referendum result in court, with the Canadian courts likely finding it unconstitutional a year or less before our next provincial election in spring of 2023.

To conclude, Premier-elect Kenney may have no choice but to implicitly wield the separatist stick in an attempt to force new crude pipeline capacity on the Feds and recalcitrant provinces such as B.C. and Quebec. But he should seriously reconsider some of his proposed fight back policy proposals, as they make it even less likely Alberta will gain additional pipeline access to tidewater during his term in office, and even more likely a separatist party will win the next provincial election in 2023.