Boom and bust

Is Alberta trapped in an abusive relationship with its fossil fuel industry?

Provincial NDP, UCP vie to be saviour of oil and gas economy
Photo: NWFblogs
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Right now, a truck convoy is on its return voyage after travelling to Ottawa to urge the federal government to do more to save Alberta’s oil and gas sector. It will be returning home to a province where Premier Rachel Notley has just declared almost $4 billion will be spent to move 120,000 barrels of oil per day by rail by mid-2020.

This is the culmination of about two months of unusually heightened political agitation in Alberta aimed at rehabilitating a fossil fuel industry unable to recover from a price crash five years ago.

Those spared in the previous wave wonder whether they will be swept away in the next.

It’s seen Albertans holding pipeline rallies in small towns and big cities; truck convoys travelling between Alberta oil towns rehearsing for the big current cross-country voyage; and even some well-meaning folk writing a pro-pipeline ditty. In an election year, this will likely all escalate as Alberta’s ruling NDP tries to ward off a surging United Conservative Party, each contingent competing to most credibly position itself as the saviour of the fossil fuel economy.

Having grown up there, I can’t help but find the plight behind these efforts especially heartbreaking. But there’s also something frustrating about seeing so much hope and effort dedicated to reviving that industry.

Though it continues to be seen as a provider of wealth, of independence, and of honest work, this is the same industry that has so often thrown Albertans out on the street and obstructed efforts to transition to a more reliable economy. It’s also bent on sabotaging efforts to seriously address climate change. Why does Alberta keep committing to it? Is Alberta trapped in an abusive relationship with its fossil fuel industry?

The abuse cycle

If that seems outlandish, consider a few things.

First, abusive relationships follow a pattern called the abuse cycle. That cycle passes through three phases (though some experts split one of those phases into a fourth one).

A reconciliation or hearts and flowers phase occurs when abusers apologize for past transgressions and vow never to do anything like that again. (“It’ll be different this time. You'll see. I promise.”) Survivors, wanting so badly for things to return to normal, take them back. The abuser becomes charming again, loving even. For a while things go well, and it becomes difficult to remember just how bad they ever were.

After that, a tension phase takes place. Something starts to go wrong, and the survivor, noticing the abuser’s disposition darkening, walks on eggshells, is careful to appease, in order to avoid setting the abuser off. But that doesn’t work for long.

Eventually, inevitably, there comes the explosion phase. This is when the severest incidents of abuse occur.

That’s not unlike what Alberta experiences with its fossil fuel industry.

In boom times, the industry treats the province well. The government, in an embarrassment of riches, spends without having to raise taxes. Workers can suddenly afford all those big-ticket items they’ve dreamed of. They can plan a future. People come from across Canada with hopes of escaping depressed economies.

Then come the busts. Something in the world energy market starts to go wrong, and workers sense the industry is about to take it out on them. They endure a gruelling anxiety about whether layoffs are coming and how those will affect the people they care for. Hoping to delay the industry’s temper, they accept cuts to pay or hours or benefits.

But that doesn’t work for long. Eventually, inevitably, the mass layoffs come, and in successive waves. The ensuing stretches of unemployment are lasting longer, and the industry’s preference for automation over workers doesn’t help. Insolvency rises. Unsurprisingly, it’s in these times that domestic abuse spikes.

Those spared in the previous wave wonder whether they will be swept away in the next. Students who went to school with hopes of working in the industry graduate only to find their skills superfluous and their careers stalled, as they are diverted into soul-deadening precarious work. The wider economy contracts.

Today, it feels like we’re in the part of the cycle where the abuser starts calling up the survivor again, pleading to be taken back for another spin around the spiral. “Just help us get our pipelines built. It’ll be different this time. You'll see. I promise.”

Indifference and withdrawal

Alberta’s recommitment to its fossil fuel economy is not compatible with a safely habitable climate, and the province’s responsibility is to leave its deep stores of carbon interred and unwoken. This truth is ignored by the industry, which is as indifferent to the well-being of the world (not to mention the communities on its front lines of extraction) as abusers are to the damage they cause to the people around them.

I lived in the province during one of the hearts and flowers phases.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry lobby group, recently issued its expectations of Alberta provincial parties for the upcoming election. Those expectations included a doubling of industry growth and three pipelines in addition to completing the Line 3, Trans Mountain, and Keystone XL tar sands pipelines. It's hard to imagine a greater expression of indifference to the fate of millions; just months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that a mere 12 years of carbon emissions at current rates will wipe out any chance of holding future average temperature to 1.5 C.

When in their grip, abusers sometimes convince survivors to withdraw, to pull away from anyone else who might influence them, even those they have responsibilities towards.

When the Federal Court of Appeal ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Alberta pulled out of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change, declaring it would not be honouring its scheduled increase of carbon pricing. The Alberta independence movement, normally ignored and left to natter away to itself at the fringes, is starting to be taken seriously in the wake of the battle over pipelines and climate change. Placards have been appearing at pro-pipeline rallies denouncing Canada’s signing onto the United Nations Compact on Migration, a further expression of wanting to (literally, in this case) shut out the world.

Enablers

Finally, consider this. Abusive relationships have enablers, people who make excuses for the abusers, who normalize their behaviours and deny their transgressions, who make survivors question the motivations of those telling them they can do better.

The list of industry enablers is too long to enumerate here.

But it includes the climate change deniers who have mystified nearly half of Albertans into believing climate change is either an unproven theory (15 per cent) or mostly natural (31 per cent).

It also includes those who have begun peddling the bizarre conspiracy theory that Canadian pipeline opposition is the result of some nefarious Rockefeller-funded U.S. environmentalist agenda.

It most certainly includes a federal government that has been a world leader in subsidizing the fossil fuel industryand that has invested both political capital and taxpayer money in approving and then bailing out the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

If not now, when?

I lived in the province during one of the hearts and flowers phases. In 2006, the industry treated Alberta so well that the government was flush enough with oil money to give us all $400.

Even back then, it felt like a strange, wasteful gift — not something one would expect of a government with any inkling that booms could ever bust or that non-renewable resources might not renew. And then there was that whole climate change thing that we’d been hearing about for so long; didn’t we need to start investing in transitioning away from fossil fuels soon? Wasn’t this our chance? If not now, when?

It wasn’t the time back then during the boom times, and it evidently isn’t the time now in the midst of a bust. Indeed, it never seems to be the time.

Because, that’s the other thing about abusive relationships: abusers don’t let survivors leave.

Having captured Alberta politics, the industry can, like most possessive abusers, shut down any attempt to escape or grow beyond it. Alberta has never been able to establish a fair royalty regime, certainly nothing of the kind that would be needed to swiftly transition off of fossil fuels, and successive provincial governments have neglected the province’s sovereign wealth fund.

That’s distressing, because even if the industry gets everything on its wishlist and even if somehow another boom erupts, it just starts the cycle again, opening the province up for the next bust. And that bust might not be far away. Just south of the border, in our main oil market, there is a serious discussion starting about a Green New Deal, an all-out government-led mobilization to rapidly abandon fossil fuels. Perhaps now would be a good time for Alberta to break up with oil and find a more reliable partner.

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