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Alberta politics, the sands, and the truth

Wildrose party leader and MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, Brian Jean, seeking to find a way into the headlines during the dog days of a summer now dominated politically by the extended federal election, chose to make some hay provincially with Toronto Centre NDP candidate Linda McQuaig’s widely publicized comment on CBC’s Power and Politics that "A lot of people recognize that a lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we're going to meet our climate change targets."

Jean was firm in his remarks, calling McQuaig’s position "anti-Alberta posturing" and demanding that Alberta Premier Notley "must actively repudiate this crazy idea in the strongest terms possible."

But as a growing number of commentators have pointed out in the ensuing political maelstrom, what Jean's statements miss is the simple fact that McQuaig was not issuing a "crazy" or extreme personal opinion about the sands, but, rather, telling the truth: there is a wide scientific and political consensus that much of the current known oil reserves in the world (including the sands) will have to stay in the ground if we are to meet internationally agreed-upon targets to mitigate against even more dramatic climatic changes due to a warming climate.

In other words, if we are to meet our climate change targets, there will have to be consequences in terms of the amount of oil (and coal and gas) we can extract and burn. The evidence in support of McQuaig's "opinion" is backed up by some of the best research into climate change around the world.

For example, NASA scientist James Hansen has stated that "the simple message is the oil sands may appear to be gold. We do need energy and there's a lot of potential energy in the oil sands. But it is fool's gold because it's going to be clear and understood within a reasonably brief period of time that we cannot exploit unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and tar shale. If we do, we're going to have to suck the CO2 back out of the atmosphere and the estimated cost of doing that is $200 to $500 a tonne of carbon."

In explaining the rationale for a joint statement issued by 110 North American researchers calling for a moratorium on new development in the sands, Simon Fraser ecologist Dr. Wendy Palen argued, "We're not trying to pick on Alberta and we're not trying to call for something that would put an end to oilsands operations. New production, new projects, new infrastructure projects, new additional oilsands production should be halted until the policies align better with international commitments to control the worst effects of climate change."

Even former Bank of Canada governor (and current Governor of the Bank of England) Mark Carney has argued that the "vast majority of reserves are unburnable" if global temperature rises are to be limited to below two degrees Celsius, the globally accepted limit to prevent runaway climate change.

In this context, Jean's politicization of McQuaig's comments is unhelpful (and to be clear, McQuaig stressed in the discussion that "All I'm saying is that we may end up in a position of having to leave it in the ground depending on what our environmental goals, our climate change reduction goals, become.").

Jean's comments may make for catchy headlines and polarized federal election debates, further politicizing regional differences of opinion in a vast, already divided country, but they ultimately do nothing to open space for much-needed fact-based discussions about our collective future after oil in the context of a changing climate. As Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta, argues, "I think it's uncontroversial that we have two looming problems that no one is exempt from: climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era. We cannot carry on using and consuming, with no consequences. It's a mistake to continue to organize our society around a resource that we won’t have one day."

Debates about climate change and energy futures are surely debates about what kind of world we'd like to live in today and leave to future generations – and thus should be central to political discussions in the midst of a federal election campaign, not something that is swept under the rug. 

However, if the dismal "debate" set off by McQuaig’s comments is any indication, the federal NDP, Alberta's new government and its official opposition have no political interest in having that important conversation. This may not be surprising for the Wildrose party, which is not known for having a progressive political stance (but does, ironically, pride itself on a belief in the freedom of speech), yet it is disappointing that both the provincial NDP ("We've always been committed to the sustainability of the energy industry, which provides good, mortgage-paying jobs, and nothing has changed") and federal NDP ("Ms. McQuaig was not referring to NDP policy") – excluding McQuaig, of course – have backed down from this important leadership challenge.

In terms of policy, the federal NDP now finds itself on a tightrope because, as blogger Michael Laxer put it, it "perpetuates the fantasy that 'economic growth' as it has been understood since the dawn of industrial civilization, and averting environmental disaster are compatible – which they are not."

Unfortunately, the discourse so far in this federal election suggests that it is illegitimate in Canada to publicly discuss climate change and the environmental consequences of oil and gas production. Or, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative's Seth Klein wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed, "our politics do not allow for serious – and truly honest – discussion of the most pressing issues of our time." Linda McQuaig attempted to base her opinions on solid scientific research, but, even with the glaring facts of real-world problems, her position was ultimately depicted as somehow attacking Albertans

Whether any political party in Alberta or Canada cares to acknowledge it, this is a conversation that is already happening globally, and needs to happen in Canada. Albertans need and deserve a voice in this discussion, which will have serious implications for the sands, Northern Alberta, and on our ability to meet needed climate change targets more broadly. 

There's nothing remotely "anti-Alberta" about including Albertans in an honest, fact-based discussion about our collective future.

Related Parkland Institute research: 

Taking the Reins: The Case for Slowing Alberta's Bitumen Production 

Directly and Adversely Affected: Public Participation in Tar Sands Development 2005-2014

Barret Weber

Barret Weber is the Director of Research with the Alberta Federation of Labour and a former research manager with Parkland Institute. He completed his PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta.

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