Bill Nye, who taught a generation (my generation) about science via a series of VHS tapes played in schoolrooms across the land, was in northern Alberta last week working on a show that will feature the oil sands. As APTN reports, the scale of bitumen development had an impact on Nye, who also noted the upcoming federal election could bring about helpful change. Drawing on their own archives and the APTN interview, Vice notes Nye has previously called Conservative leader and prime minister Stephen Harper a “controversial” figure when it comes to climate change:
Nye, who is also CEO of the Planetary Society, has been speaking out about climate change for years. Last year in an interview with VICE, he was already talking about Harper’s focus on fossil fuels and how it’s hurting Canada.
“The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil-fuel industry,” Nye told VICE. “Stephen Harper is a controversial guy in the science community because [of] the policies, especially in Western Canada.”
Nye’s visit carries little weight in a sea of election news, but is relevant for its ability to draw attention to oil sands development, the communities of First Peoples in and around the region, and to remind Canadians that people outside the country are watching and wondering what will happen as a result of this election, particularly on Canada’s climate change response agenda.
Following the leaders
This Huffington Post story about new NDP ads featuring leader Thomas Mulcair highlights the absence of environmental issues from the party’s English-language push. Both the party’s French and English videos feature windmills, but whereas protecting the environment is explicitly part of Mulcair’s agenda as presented to Quebec, in the English video (below), Mulcair is identified as having been Quebec’s environment minister in a visual clip. In his voiceover, he simply says, “As a cabinet minister, I brought people together to get things done and make a difference in people’s lives. We need to give our kids a better start in life, ensure our young people get the opportunities they need and our seniors get the benefits they deserve…”
It would be interesting to know what the NDP knows about voters’ interests in Quebec versus the rest of Canada; why does one audience get passing reference to the environment and social justice (and many references to Stephen Harper), while the other primarily receives coded references to the economy?
An Abacus poll Maclean’s reported on last week highlights how warmly respondents felt about Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, while carving a hard line between perceptions of abilities to care for young people or be good company versus abilities to persuade or negotiate.
From Alberta Oil, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall “thinks Canadians should be proud of their energy sector – and he’s not afraid to talk about it.”
From Fort McMurray Today, the future of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association, responsible for “monitoring oilsands development,” will be determined by vote in late September, given “that the group no longer knows where funding will come from.”
If we accept the popular expectation that the “real” federal election starts next week after Labour Day, for this week it is interesting to pull focus back somewhat, from what has been covered environment-wise on the election trail (pipelines, spending on infrastructure) to what has been taken up by media outside election coverage.
These items contribute to how we might think about climate change and living in our environment, yet for the most part they occupy a non-election space, not technically anchored by the daily doings of Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, or their parties, but no less influential upon our lives and the state of federal governance post-Oct. 19.
This week Barack Obama is in Alaska for the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic. As this Globe story outlines, whereas other countries are sending their environment ministers, Canada is sending a bureaucrat, which can be read as a symbolic failure to buy in on “immediate action” to safe-guard the region, or at best a distancing of members of the current federal government from whatever decisions are made or discussions had.
Foreign ministers from five of the seven circumpolar nations – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, all of which are expected to back Mr. Obama’s call for immediate action to cut emissions and protect the Arctic – will attend the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER).
Only two countries – Canada and Russia, where resource exploitation, not curbing carbon emissions, is the top Arctic priority – won’t send a minister to hear Mr. Obama’s call for action.
Neither Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson nor Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who led the Arctic Council during Canada’s two-year chairmanship, will attend the two-day GLACIER conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Anchorage, Alaska. Instead Ottawa is sending a senior bureaucrat, Daniel Jean, a deputy minister. Moscow will be similarly represented by an official, Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
This is no peripheral issue. Arctic energy extraction and sovereignty, the potential for having to move isolated and remote communities to safer ground in the years ahead, and other ramifications and results of climate change need to be dealt with. One might take issue with the U.S. government’s showcasing of “climate impacts in the Arctic as a harbinger for the world”–something like showcasing canaries in coal mines, which undermines the agency of people who live in the region now–but the political task at hand isn’t really shelve-able.
The BC RCMP respects the rights of individuals to peacefully protest says Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, on behalf of North District RCMP. To clarify, the BC RCMP has no intention of ‘taking down the camp’ set up by the Unist’ot’en. We value the Wet’suwet’en culture, the connection to the land and traditions being taught and passed on at the camp, and the importance of the camp to healing.
The week in environmental coverage of the federal election brings us back to two key questions: First, what might thinking through and explicitly naming “sacrifices” lend to a discussion of balancing the environment and the economy? Second, how are pipeline politics being discussed by different regional, national, and international constituency groups?
Environment v. economy
In the name of protecting B.C. salmon last week, Stephen Harper pledged $15-million toward habitat conservation and signaled plans to partner with the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Here is the partial announcement on the Conservative party’s web site. The final paragraph on the Tory web site–“Our conservation record shows that you can protect our cherished natural environment while still growing the economy”–looks familiar four weeks into the campaign, as all the major parties have noted the economy won’t be sacrificed for environmental management and the environment won’t be sacrificed for economic development.
The correlation of environmental and economic questions hints toward at least some sacrifice or negotiation between interests, however. So far, election campaigns have highlighted well what needs to be built up–new conservation efforts, new (energy) technologies, enhanced environmental legislation and oversight. But concrete indications of what may need to be given up are under-investigated.
Jeff Rubin, an author and former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, and David Suzuki show here how the economy and environment are already tied together, highlighting costs of climate change to Canada’s agricultural, tourism, forestry, and other sectors. They conclude:
Mr. Harper’s carbon-fuelled energy agenda hasn’t worked out, and that’s put the Canadian economy in precarious shape. But this critical moment of economic and environmental crisis is an opportunity for Canada to confront the reality, costs and urgency of climate change, and find solutions that will both reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and contribute to the economy. This is a challenge that every party in the current campaign should address.
Oil and gas trade publication Pipeline News North lay out party positions on pipelines last week in this story. Highlights of the editorial piece/election primer include, on Stephen Harper:
Harper’s re-election would mean several things, perhaps most importantly that oil and gas exploration and pipeline development in Western Canada would remain on course. His re-election would also give him another term to push for Keystone XL, while moving the Energy East, Trans Mountain, Line 9 and Northern Gateway pipelines through the remaining regulatory channels. Another mandate would also allow him to bolster resource development in the Arctic. […] Harper will likely never introduce a carbon tax, and Conservative policy documents states the party believes tax incentives would improve energy efficiency for a cleaner environment.
Whereas the writer emphasizes, in the above excerpt, Harper’s steady hand, on Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, themes of uncertainty for industry emerge:
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair would bring a complete redesign to energy policy in Canada. He opposes Northern Gateway, has not taken a firm position on Keystone XL, but appears willing to support Energy East running from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. […] The young son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Justin Trudeau has already pledged to kill Northern Gateway, while throwing his support behind Keystone and Trans Mountain. He has yet made a public stand on Energy East.
First off, how do you think the environment has been covered in the media as part of the Canadian election so far? I’m curious about what I’m missing in other parts of the country, or what is slipping under the radar in terms of national coverage?
As such, in this week’s links to additional stories (below), I’ve tried to emphasize regional stories and media interviews with candidates that I hope will be of interest. Other links will take you to more stories about Canada’s place in the world, more pipeline politics, and more questions about the absence of science from the debates so far.
The absence of science, rhetorical reliance on anecdotes, or emphasis on the economy side of the economy-environment balance, is particularly noticeable when we look at coverage of the one idea that apparently can’t be said or spoken of in this election: Leaving (some of) Alberta’s oil in the ground.
A little over a week ago, Toronto-based NDP candidate Linda McQuaig raised just this notion during a CBC debate you can find here (if you are watching the embedded video, you’ll find her comments at about 4:45). As this follow-up CBC story shows, the idea that some of Canada’s oil should be left behind is in line with studies showing that holding back from fully exhausting all oil, gas, and coal reserves could contribute to holding the line on climate change.
In the televised debate, McQuaig additionally references former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed’s positions on (slower) resource development. Useful supporting material for this reference includes this story from 2006, Lougheed’s economic argument shared with the CBC in 2011, and Andrew Nikiforuk’s meditation upon Lougheed’s lasting resource development legacy published in 2012.
McQuaig’s comments immediately sparked an equivalence between resource extraction and economic management from the Conservative Party candidate also taking part in the debate:
I called the NDP candidate on #pnpcbc out today for saying this “much of the oil in the tarsands will have to remain in the ground.”
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper built on McQuaig’s comments to argue, “there is absolutely nothing mainstream about the NDP on economic policy issues”:
Of course, this kind of partisan response is to be expected… At best, perhaps it helps voters begin to come to grips with differences between parties, though more obviously it’s a kind of partisan cheer leading free of nuance or a more detailed discussion as to how emissions can be gotten under control.
[…] this comment […] was coming from a star NDP candidate who might very well become minister of the environment or economy in a Mulcair NDP government.
So it seems fair game to question McQuaig on exactly what she means when she says “proper review process for our environmental projects like pipelines” or what the NDP means by “sustainable development” seem fair game.
Could it mean a moratorium on future oilsands development, which would include the untapped oilsands in northwestern Saskatchewan?
Could it mean a federal NDP government tax on oil that could hurt both oilsands and conventional drilling, or horizontal drilling critical to Saskatchewan’s Bakken Play?
McQuaig and Mulcair owe provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta an explanation.
Mandryk lays out what is at stake for western Canada should oil sands development be curbed and asks for more discussion and a clearer explanation still of what an NDP government would look like. Graham Thomson, a columnist for the Edmonton Journal, pushes this question further, concluding no government has so far shown its plans for sustainably marrying economic development to emission reductions:
Her comments might go over well with voters in downtown Toronto, but they’re falling flat in Alberta. And they’re playing to fears that armchair socialists in Central Canada would happily shut down the oilsands given half an excuse.
This brings us to one reason the federal NDP hasn’t done well in Alberta and why a strong showing for the NDP in some provincial ridings has rarely translated well in the same areas federally.
The federal NDP is seen as being anti-oilsands and anti-pipeline in a province filled with workers who anywhere else would be card-carrying NDP members, but who are afraid an NDP government in Ottawa would slow down the pace of energy development and put them out of work.
More problematic, however, is the assumption in other media responses that McQuaig couldn’t and shouldn’t talk about curbing oil sands development. That, in particular, a so-called star candidate can’t start a discussion that strays from safe political party positions of continuing energy development and finding new routes for moving resources. These are considered the mainstays of the Canadian economy such that outlining potential alternatives can be uncritically dismissed. Take, for example, this excerpt from a Calgary Herald editorial:
It’s extraordinary that someone like McQuaig could seek public office while holding such views about Canada’s energy sector. It is curious that there was no talk of mothballing Ontario’s automobile manufacturing industry, given that the bulk of energy greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the burning of fuel, not during extraction and processing. McQuaig is all too typical of an increasing number of Canadians who think they can enjoy transportation, computers and a warm home without actually producing energy. It’s an odd breed of naiveté that seems to be gaining ground — much like the notion that you can make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Although Canada’s northern-most regions are hardest hit by climate change, the Iqaluit-based representative for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program says the region is being overlooked in political debates about the environment, the economy, and needed infrastructure: “Issues affecting Nunavut left off the election agenda”
In New Brunswick, a letter to the editor published in the Sackville Tribune-Post highlights a group of young people’s refusal to have their support taken for granted in the absence of a dedicated climate change/environmental platform: “Country’s political leaders faltering on climate action”
But talking about pipelines doesn’t necessarily mean we have science covered…
This opinion piece, published in The Star last week (and drawn to my attention by a good friend), points out why hard questions about science need to be asked during this election–for example, why has funding for scientists, for research, and for monitoring, been curbed in different ways? Why can’t federal government scientists talk about their research?
In keeping with the goal of bringing together as much environment-related coverage as possible, this week’s post focuses on how environment issues were framed in the first leadership debate, which took place last Thursday.
Leaders were asked to position themselves in relation to energy and the environment fairly early in the two-hour debate, and as GreenPAC pointed out, we heard more key environmental issues discussed by leaders in this English-language debate, more often, than during the 2011 English-language debate.
Chalk up the presence of the environment on the national debate agenda to sustained citizen activism (as Greenpeace energy campaigner Keith Stewart did here), or to interest in the energy/economy side of environmental questions when oil prices are slumping (consider this Calgary Herald analysis that brings oil prices, pipelines, leaders’ positions, and social license into play). Obviously, the two are inseparable, but it was the latter–energy and its ability to drive Canada’s economy–that offered the primary frame for entering into the environment debate. Consider the debate moderator’s opening question, to Stephen Harper:
Mr. Harper, you’ve been Prime Minister for a decade, and you want to be a different kind of Prime Minister on energy exports. You want Canada to be an energy superpower, but major export projects to the United States and China have stalled on your watch. What have you achieved in energy exports that beats the record of your predecessors? What do you have to show on this file for a decade’s effort?
You can read the entire transcript of the debate here, but let’s take a look at the question and its context:
the Conservative government’s emphasis on becoming an “energy superpower,” a slogan the prime minister has touted in public addresses all over the world since 2006, is incorporated in the very backbone of the question
two of the “major export projects” that have stalled are the Keystone XL and the Enbridge Northern Gateway, and both projects, proposed to carry bitumen out of Alberta’s oil sands, are hotly contested; the Keystone line is literally in the news in the United States every day, and last Thursday a new poll reflected sustained opposition in British Columbia to the Northern Gateway (though support/against numbers among those polled are close)
This framing of the environment debate doesn’t really unpack any of the problems it sets up. The premise of becoming an “energy superpower,” or whether this is a worthy goal isn’t questioned (this 2011 article, by Laura Way, offers a more exacting look at what constitutes an energy superpower, how boosting exports doesn’t really cut it, and gives us some insight into the extent to which the slogan was not initially adopted by national media). Reading the “major export projects” as “stalled” echoes former natural resource minister Joe Oliver’s call, in 2012, to streamline the pipeline hearing process. To “beat the record” of former federal governments, in terms of moving resources out of Canada, is held out as something of a common objective. And ultimately there is no explicit relationship discussed between extraction and mobility.
Of course, the purpose of an opening question such as this is to actually engage the person who is going to answer. Arguably, asking a question that centers on wind power or solar energy or a different model for encouraging industries to significantly reduce carbon emissions would not really invite an on-topic answer, but a hard steer toward what Harper actually wanted to talk about. Perhaps holding him to his own record, on his own terms, can open more possibilities.
Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper: Well, in fact, our energy exports have increased, not just our — until recently, obviously — not just our oil and gas exports to the United States, but we’ve also seen increasing uranium exports and coal exports and others to Asia. But I would say this, Paul: the federal government does not build pipelines. We obviously favour seeing a diversification of our exports, but we – we establish an environmental assessment process. Companies have to go through that, and they are going through that process.
In terms of the Keystone pipeline, as you know, that’s a – that’s a situation under control of the United States. I’ve had many conversations with President Obama. He’s not asking Canada to say anything. He’s saying he will simply make a decision that’s in the Americans’ best interests. But as you know, there’s overwhelming public support on both sides, so I’m very optimistic in the long run about the future of that project.
Mulcair: no one pipeline has gotten off the drawing board because it doesn’t have public backing. #elxn42 — Rosemary Barton (@RosieBarton) August 4, 2015
And campaigning in Calgary, Justin Trudeau also kept the economy and environment firmly linked, saying, “If we had better environmental policy in this country, we would be reassuring our trading partners, we would reassure Canadians, and we would have a much better ability to get those resources to market. That’s what we understand.”
This is the rub, after all: Is there room in this federal election to talk about alternatives to the status quo? How would a shift work as party leaders move across the country, working to appeal to and motivate voters with different regional interests? Is there room for a discussion about the environment to move substantially outside the frames we have seen so far? My questions are similar to concluding points made in the Greenpeace blog post referenced above, though there are a series of follow-up questions for voters, for reporters, and for campaigners: Do voters want to see a change in how the environment is framed? Is a shift in the terms of the national debate possible? Is a turn to alternatives too future-oriented, intangible, or even too difficult under current economic circumstances? Does a discussion that changes course, instead, need to start or stay much closer to home, at intensely local levels… and if so, how can electoral politics and federal politicians be engaged in a debate shift?
Another personality-focused storyline running through the early days of this election is the Harper v. Wynne/Notley narrative. This weekend, The Journal took a long, analytical look at what Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has accomplished during her first three months in power–it’s a great read altogether, and on the environment front:
The carbon levy on heavy polluters was increased and emissions targets strengthened, but Albertans are no closer to seeing a completed climate change strategy than they were under the Tory government.
Last of all, you may be interested in True North, Strong and Free, an advocacy project by Evidence for Democracy that has curated a series of stories which it argues shows how science and evidence have come to be undermined in Canada.
During past elections, I have often bemoaned the absence of environmental issues from campaign narratives–most explicitly when I helped cover part of the 2012 Alberta election. (The 2008 federal election was certainly an exception, when Stephane Dion’s green shift plan proved notable for its centering of important environmental and climate change questions in the media.)
Going into an incredibly long federal election campaign, I’m undertaking a weekly project to track media coverage of environmental issues in Canada. Every Monday until Oct. 19, I’ll be using this space to relay and sometimes critique key election stories, press releases, videos, and whatever else I can cobble together in time for election day.
This effort is not partisan: If you are reading this, I genuinely hope that matters of the environment, including how natural resources are moved to markets, carbon emissions, safe and available drinking water, and more will be on your mind when you cast a vote. They should be–these issues define our economies, as well as our relationships to where we live and how we live. But I am not going to suggest how you should actually vote.
This effort is an opportunity to learn new things: At the outset, I do not know how the media will cover environmental issues through this election. I do not know how different political parties will make environmental issues central in their platforms (through sustained attention, not just a few words here or there). And I do not know precisely how information will move through this election, though as a communication studies type, I am excited to approach this project with a pretty open mind as to what constitutes media (hint: not just legacy print, radio and television institutions).
Every week I will offer the best cross-section of information I can find, and if I am missing anything, please send me a note on Twitter, @taudette, or comment here.
So, let’s get started with some background on the party platforms and key issues as we know them so far:
The Ottawa Citizen (and much of the Postmedia network) published this story online yesterday, rounding up party promises and party records on a cross-section of key election issues. Let’s break out some of those items:
It is not at all an understatement to say pipeline politics–or questions of how we move oil sands oil to international markets–are key going into an election, and regionally divisive.
The story referenced above deals with the four main national parties, but not the Bloc Quebecois, and this is something of an oversight on the pipeline issue. According to le Journal de Montreal, environmental issues are actually at “the heart” of leader Gilles Duceppe’s campaign, and we see him note, very specifically, opposition to the Energy East pipeline, which Duceppe describes as risky for Quebec.
Pipeline questions also came up elsewhere over the weekend ahead of Sunday’s election call. Here is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Hudson, Que., answering questions about pipelines by focusing on what he calls the politicization of the National Energy Board’s process of seeing through pipeline proposals.
In recent years, the governing Conservatives have been supportive of pipelines, arguing access to international markets is absolutely necessary for Canada to realize its potential as a global “energy superpower.” Just a couple weeks ago, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford described the need to move product out of Canada as paramount–or, as the CBC put it, “not a priority, [but] an imperative.”
In the official transcript for Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s election announcement, the environment is not explicitly discussed. Maclean’s notes whoever wins a majority on Oct. 19 will be headed to Paris soon after for a United Nations climate change conference, and describes the Conservative record on carbon emissions as such:
Back in 2009, Harper signed the Copenhagen Accord, promising to cut emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, or down to 611 megatonnes. But Environment Canada’s annual “emission trends” report, released late last year, says the country is on track to be emitting 727 megatonnes in 2020. Clearly, tough new measures would be needed to hit the Copenhagen target. Meanwhile, at the G7 summit in June, Harper agreed to steeper reductions—30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. How could that be achieved? “Nobody’s going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights,” Harper said at the G7 meeting in Germany. “We’ve simply got to find a way to create lower carbon-emitting sources of energy.” Just that.
SOURCE: (2015, 2 August). “Election issues 2015: A Maclean’s primer on climate.” Maclean’s. Retrieved 3 August 2015: http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/climate-primer/
So, that’s it for Week One… Here’s hoping there’s more to discuss next week.
In Montreal last week, I watched, on the edge of my seat, as Alberta changed over its government for the first time in over four decades. I exchanged text messages with friends still living in the province, watched live coverage online past Alberta’s midnight and my 2 a.m., plugged into Facebook and Twitter, and read every morsel of news about every riding that I could find. I missed being a reporter, of course — and I have greedily gobbled up so many excellent pieces of analysis over the last few days, some of which I offer links to below — but more, I was sad to have missed being in Alberta on such a historic day.*
I also thought back to last year, when I was invited to participate in a Petrocultures 2014 panel, hosted by McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, discussing whether ours is a “petro-democracy,” or a democracy too influenced by the oil industry. You can watch the video from this panel here, but as a former political and environment reporter, and now as someone whose research is dedicated to better understanding the entanglements and responsibilities presented by the province’s oil sands, my answer was pretty straightforward:
Yes, Alberta’s is a petro-democracy.
And, no, Alberta’s is not a petro-democracy.
The latter answer seems particularly, starkly, correct a week after Albertans woke to their new government. Yet the term “petro-democracy” deserves continued attention, as it serves no one to believe that its markers and implications only affect governments and people “elsewhere,” or on the right. The term matters because it insists we draw our eye to how governments work when oil, international industry interests, domestic and foreign labour, land claims, and the environment are in the mix.
Claims of petro-democracy are critical, suggesting both an absence or failure of democratic processes and an over-arching over-reliance on the oil industry as an economic engine. Boiled down to an “oil-impedes-democracy claim” (Ross, 2001, p. 325), petro-states are typically characterized by three “effects:”
the “‘rentier effect,’ which suggests that resource-rich governments use low tax rules and patronage to relieve pressures for greater accountability” (Ibid., pp. 327-328);
the “‘repression effect,’ which argues that resource wealth retards democratization by enabling governments to boost their funding for internal security” (Ibid., p. 328);
and the “‘modernization effect,’ which holds that growth based on the export of oil and minerals fails to bring about the social and cultural changes that tend to produce democratic government” (Ibid., p. 328).
I would argue it is easy to read such a list for the answer you want to find. Read the list as a recipe for how authoritarian governments work elsewhere; Ethical Oil, as a book and movement, consistently testifies to Canada’s liberal democracy as standing alone among, or remarkably contrasting, the governments of most other oil-producing states. Or, drawing on Andrew Nikiforuk‘s work — as Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick (2012) have — read it as a recipe for how Alberta came to have a 44-year-old government, the “distinction of having the lowest provincial voter turnout in the country,” a “role in preventing Canada from meeting its climate-change goals,” and a heavy hand in allowing more temporary foreign workers to support the growing bitumen extraction industry (p. 9).
But we can’t stop at either of these readings. Both allow a potential narrative of placing petro-democracies in other spaces or other times; both skirt how government works now or here, how the conflicting interests of oil and citizenship must constantly be navigated. Settling upon petro-democracy as a marker of another government (whether that of a previous regime or a foreign regime) invites a kind of disinterest in questioning how things work, or even an apathy with regard to bothering to weigh in to make change. It also elides attention to cultures of resistance and self-determination that have flourished in Alberta despite the province’s growing reliance on bitumen extraction.
One example that I discussed last year is the Pembina Institute. It is a strange place to begin thinking through cultures of resistance, as the Pembina Institute does not in any way describe itself as anti-oil sands. The consistency with which the national environmental think tank illuminates concerns and solutions has won it great attention and respect, and it is a go-to for journalists seeking measured rebuttals, critiques, or nuance of government or industry policies and plans. But consider its roots: the Pembina Institute was launched in 1985 in the small oil town of Drayton Valley, Alberta, as a response by local residents to a sour gas blowout that killed two people and prompted, for those residents, a need for further investigation and research into the environmental impacts sour gas pollution and other kinds of energy-related pollution produced (Pembina Institute, n.d.).
Greenpeace’s campaigns in Alberta, on the other hand, have consistently, performatively, illuminated environmental concerns in a decidedly anti-tar sands fashion, drawing international and local attention to the heart of Alberta’s bitumen extraction sites — including, but not limited to, this 2008 speech jam and this 2009 site blockade. There are those who dismiss these moments as stunts, and there is a measure of truth to this — they are indeed carefully constructed and camera ready. But political speeches, rallies, press conferences, press releases, etc. are all also carefully constructed in order to dispatch clear messages to mass audiences. Negotiating the limits of media coverage in order to re-orient the agenda is political and it is necessary. Also, it is worth noting that somehow, as Alberta neared this year’s provincial election, the Edmonton Journal named Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema among the city’s top movers and shakers, bucking the notion that stunts are worthy of little attention, and instead recognizing a decade’s efforts as necessary and agenda-defining.
And then there is Fort Chipewyan, where First Peoples downstream of the tar sands have pursued court cases to curb further development while maintaining a constant and varied media presence that reminds Canadians of the potential health implications of ongoing extraction. In recent years the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has also capitalized upon the nature of celebrity-driven media culture to secure a prominent place on the national agenda, drawing the likes of James Cameron, Neil Young, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Leonardo DiCaprio to the region and its efforts.
Alberta is home to persistent examples of environmental advocacy and indigenous resistance that ought to serve as inspirations, and ought not be overlooked going forward. One might conservatively (ahem) guess that the work of these communities and organizations will continue, and this work will continue to invite consideration, engagement, and responsibility. As governance changes in Alberta, holding onto questions about petro-democracy may well continue to be quite useful.
* The NDP win this week was history-making for its dispatching of the Progressive Conservative government, though I personally always feel a little uneasy when I say things like “made history” or “legendary.”
I also can’t help comparing the government change to what has been written about the PC party’s entry into the history books decades ago, and wondering what culture shift Rachel Notley’s win will come to represent for those who look back. In his 2009 book, Ralph Could Have Been A Superstar: Tales of the Klein Era, Rich Vivone paints an evocative picture of the culture change Peter Lougheed represented when he put an end to 36 years of Social Credit government in 1971. The study in contrasts between the So-Cred era, marked by a “pervasive religious moralism,” and the Lougheed era, which “promise[d] to lead Alberta into the 20th century” (p. 68), begins thus:
I arrived in Edmonton for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in the September of 1964, stepping off the train at the CPR station on the northwest corner of 109th Street and Jasper Avenue, a kid from small town Ontario hungry for the freedom of a strange city and excitement of university life […]
I had been warned not to expect much, since Alberta was Canada’s Bible Belt and if I didn’t listen to the Back to the Bible Hour on Sunday mornings, I would be doomed. I hoped it was a joke. […]
The Lord’s Day Act ruled. The province shut down on Sunday. Jasper Avenue, the centre of the city, was dead quiet the day I arrived. No restaurant open for breakfast, no newspaper to find a place to live, no movie theatre to kill an afternoon. […]
Bars were separated into two sections: Men’s and Ladies & Escorts; a man traveling alone couldn’t go into the women’s side unless the bartender could be convinced that a lady was expecting him. Restaurants that served liquor were heavily regulated and provincial government inspectors prowled the bars at night to enforce severe liquor laws. Stores were closed by 6 p.m. on weekdays. Students at the University of Alberta behaved themselves. The activist 60s hadn’t arrived.
The Bible Belt was alive and thriving. (Vivone, 2009, pp. 67-68)
Pembina Institute (n.d.). About Pembina. http://www.pembina.org/about/about-pembina
Ross, Michael L. (2001). Does oil hinder democracy? World Politics 53: 325-61.
Shrivastava, Meenal and Lorna Stefanick (2012). Do oil and democracy only clash in the Global South?: Petro Politics in Alberta, Canada. New Global Studies 6(1): Article 5.
Vivone, Rich (2009). Ralph Could Have Been A Superstar: Tales of the Klein Era. Kingston, Ont.: Patricia Publishing Inc.