Register Wednesday | October 21 | 2020
New Fuel Illustrations by Alexander MacAskill.

New Fuel

Ironically, Alberta is the perfect place for a Green New Deal.

In spite of an oil-patch meltdown, a recent Saudi oil price war with Russia, and the creep of Covid-19 across North America, Premier Jason Kenney sounds like an insurance adjuster with a mild hangover. His shirt collar is welded tight to his neck, a striped red tie clashing with the alternating Canada and Alberta flags racked behind the podium. There’s just a hint of disappointment as he reads off some of the most catastrophic economic news Alberta has known in a generation. “I see that Western Canadian Select crude oil is trading right now at $2.80,” Kenney tells the assembled cameras.

It’s April and the leader of Canada’s petro-province has come up with a surprisingly radical plan. Tens of thousands of oilfield workers are unemployed or furloughed. Meanwhile, around ninety-four thousand inactive oil and gas wells are sitting idle, any of which could leak and pose an environmental risk to nearby land. The Alberta government, Kenney says, has decided to use $1.7 billion from the federal government to put some workers back on the job decommissioning these wells. 

Most of the reporters at that April press conference asked Kenney about the state of the industry writ large. But Tom Ross, a 660 News reporter based in Calgary, posed a far more existential question. “With the oil and gas market taking such a hit, when do you start thinking about a full-on transition away from fossil fuels?” he asked. “Are you talking to anyone who advocates for a Green New Deal?”

Kenney rarely loses his cool in public. At worst, his fiery speeches on the campaign trail the previous year reached the level of orchestrated indignation—more akin to a sermon than a soapbox. But to a man who champions Big Oil wholeheartedly, the concept Ross was referring to is beyond the pale: a rapid transition away from a fossil-fuel economy while retraining oilfield workers to maintain, in Alberta’s case, wind farms. To his credit, Kenney squeezed out a single sentence about the province’s newly introduced emissions reduction program. And then he went off-script.

“When you talk about the Green New Deal—listen,” he snapped. “Our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta, not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes. We are actually not trying to amplify—but to fight back against—the political agenda of the Green Left that has been trying to landlock Alberta energy. So, we’re not going to cooperate with the folks that are trying to shut down Canada’s single largest subsector.” He then attacked Ross’s outlet. “I mean, that kind of question in the middle of an economic crisis from a Calgary-based media outlet frankly throws me for a loop.”

Sitting in Climate Justice Edmonton’s office, Emma Jackson couldn’t believe her ears. She frantically messaged one of her less-attentive fellow organizers. “Get back on the livestream!” she recalls saying. “You’re missing this golden moment.”

Jackson is among a band of organizers pushing for a Green New Deal in the middle of Canada’s oil capital—more than that, she believes  Alberta is the perfect place to make it happen. She’s not the only one who’s had that thought. Alberta has highly skilled workers capable of dismantling the pumpjacks they built to extract crude. It has ample sunlight and steady winds and cheap land. 

And while Kenney’s outburst (and his sudden departure from the press conference, ostensibly to take an urgent call with the prime minister) shows his unwillingness to negotiate, Jackson also believes that golden moment made Albertans who might be on the fence about the province’s future sit up and pay attention. “It really forces them to pick a very clear side,” she says.

The pandemic has done a similar thing for Canada’s leaders, pushing governments into drastic economic action at a pace unthinkable just a year ago. We live in a strange political moment. Jackson points out the incredible political about-faces made by Canadian premiers across the country; for example, both Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have cancelled evictions entirely. The federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit is an unprecedented relief program approaching the concept of a universal basic income. Automakers are retooling their production lines to crank out masks, visors and gowns. 

“The window of what’s politically possible has already been shifted, seemingly overnight,” Jackson says. Under the right conditions, she believes, Alberta could rethink its entire economy. Is the triple-whammy of a global oil price crash, a pandemic and ever-more-obvious climate change the right conditions? 

The last decade has not been kind to Alberta. The major oil-price downturn that crashed the province’s economy happened nearly six years ago, but nearly one in five young Alberta men were still unemployed last December.  A quarter of Calgary’s massive downtown office towers—the nerve centre of Canada’s oil and gas industry—remain empty after periodic layoffs. 

But before the pandemic struck, and especially during the United Conservative Party’s election campaign, rallies championing the industry had become increasingly common. Politicians pointed to them as expressions of aggrieved identity, an identity politics borne out in “I LOVE OIL AND GAS” shirts, calls to criss-cross Canada with new pipelines, and even outright climate-change denialism.

At the same time, take a look at the huge crowds during the province’s various climate marches last year. Thousands—mainly young Albertans—filled the streets of downtown Calgary and Edmonton. Indigenous land defenders led the way. Greta Thunberg herself paid a visit to Alberta’s legislature, backed by people stretching along Edmonton’s major streets for blocks. The global youth movement around climate catastrophe briefly went local, organized by the province’s climate groups who were, in turn, fuelled partly by the Alberta government’s unabashed petro-nationalism. At the Edmonton rally, the Alberta Legislature windows sported “I LOVE OIL AND GAS” signs. 

Emma Jackson isn’t from Alberta. She grew up in Ottawa and cut her teeth in the fossil-fuel divestment movement at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, around the time of a standoff between the Elsipogtog First Nation and SWN Resources Canada over shale gas. She later moved to Edmonton to attend the University of Alberta right after the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. Her master’s thesis focused on migrant caregivers—many of them nannies—who helped local families rebuild their lives after the wildfires without much reward, with this exploitation propping up the recovery efforts of the northern Alberta city.

Moving out to Alberta was personal for Jackson, but also political. “Canada is going to have an incredibly difficult time moving away from fossil fuels if we don’t grapple with what a transition would look like in Alberta and how it can support workers,” Jackson says.

Others have arrived at these conclusions within the industry itself. Lliam Hildebrand’s conversion came as he watched An Inconvenient Truth, the quintessential early-2000s Al Gore documentary about the climate crisis. At the time, though, he worked in a steel fabrication shop in Victoria that assembled the very guts of the industry: pressure vessels, heat exchangers, drilling rig platforms, a gigantic coal-ship loader for the Tsawwassen terminal near Vancouver. In other words, he was complicit in the very infrastructure driving Gore’s alarming predictions about global warming. “I was like—oh God, those are the things I build all day long,” he recalls.

He was also struck by the contrast inside his workplace, which handled multiple projects at once. Around the time he watched An Inconvenient Truth, he was also building a weather station for a renewable energy project. Fifteen feet away, his coworkers assembled oil and gas components. Hildebrand took what he called an “extreme” step, vowing to quit the day after his apprenticeship ended and dedicate himself to renewable energy projects. 

Ironically, that path led him to the Alberta oil sands. He needed to pay his bills and, more specifically, to fund a master’s degree. He couldn’t find the kind of steel fabrication job he wanted in Victoria. Meanwhile, Alberta had hundreds of open oil sands jobs. So Hildebrand spent the next six years of his life as a fly-in worker toiling on maintenance gigs for months at a time at Suncor Millennium and other major oil sands facilities. In between, he tackled—and eventually finished—grad school, which was a financial breeze in the end as he was making up to $7,000 a week before taxes. “It was an incredible opportunity for me. I feel very fortunate,” Hildebrand says. “But I also felt very guilty.”

Hildebrand spoke to his colleagues and found many were actually keen on putting their skills to clean energy uses, so long as they could make a good living. “It’s a bell curve of sorts,” he explains. “There are people that are adamantly opposed to a transition to renewables—but that’s very, very slim.” 

In 2016, Hildebrand and his team launched an organization called Iron and Earth at the low point of Alberta’s penultimate economic gutting. Its raison d’être was to organize retraining and bridge-building for those trying to make a career transition to green energy. The nonprofit’s membership includes boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers and labourers—oil and gas workers dedicated to a greener, more sustainable future. These workers, by and large, don’t need retraining.“If you look at a picture of a biofuel plant that creates oil and gas from organic materials, and you look at a traditional oil refinery, you can’t really tell them apart,” Hildebrand explains. “It’s just a different feedstock and a different output.”

Alberta seems enticing for green energy producers, too. Land for industrial-scale renewable energy projects is plentiful, and companies are buying in. Western Canada’s largest solar farm is currently under construction in Vulcan County, south of Calgary, with an estimated opening date in 2023. Once fully operational, the privately owned project will power up to twelve thousand Alberta homes.

On the day a fleet of big rigs coasted into Ottawa last February, driven by pipe-loving, largely far-right conservatives opposed to the carbon tax, Jackson was wrapping up her own visit to the capital. She had flown from Edmonton for PowerShift, a gathering of youth climate leaders.

Everything about their conference was anathema to the United We Roll convoy, and the two sides met: one morning, several dozen anti-fascist organizers and climate justice groups showed up with their own counter-protest as a welcome mat as the convoy finally came to a stop in front of Parliament Hill. Truck horns blared, protesters chanted, and megaphones screeched in the frigid winter air.

Over the din, Jackson saw a convoy rider talking to one of her friends and she walked over. She recalls the man yelling about losing his savings and drowning in debt; his uncertainty about whether he could afford to send his kids to university. Many United We Roll convoy riders were Western Canadians who felt the country’s eastern half didn’t understand—or care—about their plight. Jackson told him that she, too, had travelled from Alberta. “As soon as I said that, he was completely silent,” she recounts. “He completely stopped.”

Alberta’s affinity for the oilfield’s rough-and-tumble enterprise isn’t unique or surprising or strange. Work is integral to our identities and, all too often, our regions’ unique psyches. Newfoundland prides itself on a four-hundred-year-long history of Europeans fishing the cod-rich Grand Banks. Assembly-line workers in Oshawa fought tooth and nail to save the city’s General Motors plant from closing. And Alberta, a province that wholeheartedly entered the oil business after Leduc Well No. 1 struck “black gold” in 1947, is grappling with the possibility of its pride and joy becoming irrelevant—and irresponsible—in a low-carbon future.

“Cultural transitions are the most difficult to understand, because they take so long,” says Juan Moreno-Cruz, Canada Research Chair in Energy Transitions at the University of Waterloo. “You can only see them when you look back.” This isn’t unique to Canada, either. One forthcoming peer-reviewed paper looks at the sudden closure of the Blackjewel coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin last year. The mass layoffs that followed should, in theory, have convinced the Powder River Basin’s coal miners to retrain for other jobs. Instead, they stuck to their guns. Local politicians became increasingly focused on extending the life of the coal industry, even in the face of lower worldwide demand for the fuel and its catastrophic contributions to climate change.

In fact, a committee struck by the Wyoming governor to diversify the state’s economy even advocated for the state to “maintain or increase production levels of coal” by 2038. Alberta’s not so different. Outside the province, championing oil and gas in an age of increasing climate awareness seems old-fashioned, even quaint. 

First Nations communities often end up at the heart of this cultural debate. Oil and gas development on their traditional territories represents a lucrative path to economic sovereignty, and the Alberta government has championed that, with Premier Jason Kenney going so far as to accuse environmentalists of perpetuating “eco-colonialism.”

However, some First Nations in the province, notably the Athabasca Chipewyan, are fiercely opposed to oil and gas development. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has led this charge for many years, most recently against Teck Resources’ now-scuttled $20 billion Frontier oil sands mine. He wrote letters demanding better conservation efforts and land protection in the face of its massive impacts, as well as better consultations with First Nations. Bronwen Tucker, a co-organizer with Climate Justice Edmonton, says needing to rely on one industry for economic self-sufficiency isn’t the same as empowerment. “That’s the only option given to Indigenous communities in Alberta,” she says.

It is tempting to portray angry oilfield workers like the United We Roll riders as deluded or ignorant. But anyone who’s been laid off from any job, anywhere, should understand that indignant righteousness. “I understand where you’re coming from,” Jackson remembers telling the rider at the rally—about debt, lost savings, an uncertain future.

Indignation at these rapid economic transformations tends to slip into a second stage of the grieving process: bargaining. If the mine can stay open just a little longer, if Ottawa politicians cared a little more about expediting oil infrastructure approvals, we’d have our jobs back. We’d be secure again.

Kenney was elected on a very simple platform: “Jobs, the economy and pipelines,” as the media kept summing it up. As the Covid-19 pandemic suffocates oil demand, he is spending billions of dollars just to keep the spirit of his promise alive. His government is covering the oil industry’s required contributions to the Alberta Energy Regulator for six months, saving it $113 million. Weeks after this spring’s global price crash—when a barrel of Alberta crude was worth less than a pint of Budweiser—Kenney announced a $1.5 billion investment in the Keystone XL pipeline. (Since then, the US Supreme Court has delayed its construction.) 

In late June, Kenney’s government unveiled a new provincial investment agency meant to draw in foreign capital and persuade companies across many sectors to move to Wild Rose Country. This agency is also doing its best to persuade major international investors that Alberta’s environmental record is pristine, despite the province’s high greenhouse gas emissions and relatively lax carbon policies. Kenney has routinely accused skeptical environmentalists of promoting what he calls a “campaign of defamation” against the oil industry. His government is also waging a multimillion dollar “fight-back strategy” aimed at suppressing criticism of Alberta’s oil and gas campaign with taxpayer-funded ad campaigns.

“All options will be on the table,” Kenney told reporters at that press conference in April. “I repeat, all options will be on the table to do everything that we can within our capacity to help protect jobs and Albertans.” Except, of course, a Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal has been dismissed as wishful and fantastical economic thinking since its inception and earliest writings—which go back more than a decade, although the idea only started garnering mainstream political attention in 2018. But the proposal operates on an elementary principle: that workers who are otherwise sitting idle are capable of building roads or disassembling oil infrastructure. They just need a steady paycheck. 

The real irony is that Alberta understands this principle better than most provinces. Around seventy kilometres west of Edmonton, south of several villages spread scattershot around Lake Wabamun, is the Highvale Mine, Canada’s largest surface strip coal mine. The dirty, Victorian-era fuel was still generating 43 per cent of Alberta’s electricity as recently as 2018. For decades, the mine provided well-paid, secure union jobs. Today, it is undergoing a slow death—which is also bringing a quiet, somewhat radical economic transformation.

Within the last two years, the mine’s workforce has been whittled from 670 workers to just 228. “I think we’ve gone past the point of denial,” says Roy Milne, the former president of United Steelworkers Local 1595, the union representing Highvale coal mine workers. Foreseeing this in 2017, the former NDP government’s Coal Workforce Transition Program set aside $40 million to soften their landing.

Shortly after their 2015 election win, the former NDP government’s climate plan called for the phase-out of the province’s coal-fired power plants within fifteen years. The plants’ owners began adapting quickly, retrofitting generating units to run on cleaner natural gas. Still, the move left coal workers under the axe of inevitable layoffs.

“The program,” as locals often call it, financed several support programs for coal workers facing impending layoff, including a grant to bridge the years to normal retirement age, tuition vouchers for retraining, and even reimbursement for moving expenses should workers choose to move for a new job. “My hat’s off to both governments—the ones who brought [the program] in and the ones that kept it,” says Milne. 

The concept of a “just transition” for workers caught in the midst of industry upheaval has existed, in one form or another, for decades. In the late 1990s, Alberta had the Long-Term Inactive Well Program, an initiative that required oil companies to clean up their oldest wells. Who did this work? The same riggers who assembled and maintained them in the first place. 

In 1998, the price of Canadian crude fell to around $12 a barrel and the industry was on the ropes. Regan Boychuk, a researcher who focuses on oil well cleanup and job transitions, recalls how the riggers he knew in the nineties still had jobs at the time—publicly funded ones, because of the program. In 2014, when oil prices collapsed again, Boychuk thought back to the earlier system. That year, “we were hardly drilling wells anymore. We weren’t going to in the foreseeable future,” he says. Forty thousand Alberta riggers were unemployed. The earlier employment program “seems like a no-brainer solution to the current predicament.” 

The idea of enforcing the “polluter pays” principle—the basic premise of Canadian environmental stewardship—seemed like a win-win. Oil companies would pay to dismantle their own mess, finally tackling their looming environmental liabilities, while workers would get paid for their expertise. “It’s the same people, the same services, the same equipment that goes into drilling.”

But while the UCP continue to fund the Coal Workforce Transition Program, it appears uninclined to delve into new similar policies. Even the former NDP government wasn’t, overall, “bold and brave on this file, either,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. The last government did run retraining programs and pushed for diversification within Alberta’s economy. But former NDP Premier Rachel Notley also led the charge on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. When the Federal Court of Appeal first shot it down over insufficient Indigenous consultation, Notley pulled Alberta out of Ottawa’s climate plan in protest, saying that “without Alberta, the climate plan isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Climate activists in Alberta aren’t bothering to engage local politicians at all, opting instead to rally ordinary Albertans. They’ve spent the last few years organizing workshops and meetings to connect like-minded people. Recently, Climate Justice Edmonton has also reached out to communities outside the relatively progressive circles seen in Alberta’s capital city. The movement has sent organizers to canvas in less-progressive Calgary, stopping grocery shoppers and asking them about a Green New Deal (they’ve gotten largely positive reactions, the canvassers say). Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the group has also held webinars on organizing mass movements. 

But politicians can’t be ignored forever. The province’s election cycle is still years away and, without overwhelming action, the climate needle will remain unmoved. 

Still, one former Alberta politician says regular Albertans will, in the end, be the key. Shaye Anderson lost his NDP seat when Kenney swept to power in 2019. Since then, the Telus technician has become an outspoken supporter of a Green New Deal. Born and raised on Vancouver Island, much of his family has worked in the region’s forestry industry at some point, a sector that has faced its own criticism over clear-cutting. He ended up moving to Alberta fifteen years ago and ran for the NDP, ultimately becoming municipal affairs minister after the party’s unexpected 2015 victory.

This suited him: his rationale for getting into politics was the feeling that plenty of small communities hosted resource development in their own backyards but reaped none of the rewards and all of the risks. His new job had him zigzagging the province, speaking with elected officials in small towns and hamlets and rural regions, many of which depend heavily on shale gas operations to support their tax base and provide decent jobs. In the wake of an increasingly unstable shale gas industry and waves of bankruptcies, many of those companies were folding, sometimes leaving their derelict equipment behind for local governments to clean up.

Anderson admits the NDP didn’t talk a lot about a Green New Deal; it was far more focused on its climate leadership plan, which pushed for greater energy efficiency and implementing a carbon tax. And this is something he regrets. “Looking back in hindsight, I wish we pushed harder to go further Left and to do more decarbonization, one hundred percent,” Anderson says. “But the leadership … didn’t think that we should be going that hard on it, because we would lose voters.”

Since the NDP lost in 2019, he’s gone back to his former job as a Telus technician but is still reaching out to rural residents, this time as co-chair of the NDP’s rural caucus and an enthusiastic supporter of the Green New Deal. 

Overhauling Alberta’s economy seems impossible; it calls for an entire suite of Byzantine, dense policies, enacted in both the provincial legislature and Parliament. And you can’t argue that climate rallies—though they have happened in Alberta—have reached a boiling point there or anywhere else. 

But to some, ambition is a virtue. Jackson, for example, is a socialist. Her vision is both ambitious and incredibly broad. To her, a Green New Deal includes a massive redistribution of wealth and the empowerment of disenfranchised communities while giving locals control over their own energy generation. It involves returning Crown land to its original Indigenous inhabitants. Funding universal childcare and pharmacare programs. A commitment to cleaner energy policies, but also the rapid expansion of many sectors that already exist—transit, childcare, education. “You need to put forward, in this moment, a really holistic vision of what you’re working towards,” she says. 

“We don’t have to wait. We don’t have to settle for half-measures,” says McGowan, whose union represents everyone from Calgary Transit to Suncor and Safeway grocery workers, ironworkers to electricians. “We can think big and swing for the fences.”

Back in April, Kenney walked the troublesome reporter, Tom Ross, through the Coles Notes version of “ethical oil,” a theory coined in 2010 by far-right ideologue Ezra Levant and championed by industry leaders across Canada. 

Canada, the idea goes, is a country with high ethical, environmental and labour standards, attributes lacking in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and other autocratic, oil-producing countries. Therefore, Canada has an obligation to displace less ethical crude with its own, winning, of course, substantial market share as a result.

“We will be,” Kenney enunciated, “a major part of that supply. We will not abandon world energy markets to some of the world’s worst regimes.” Then he interrupted his press secretary as she offered Ross a follow-up question, saying he was out of time. 

If anything, Kenney has only doubled down since then. Still, Jackson is optimistic. After all, she points out, one of the defining protest movements of the early twenty-first century—the Occupy movement—began three years after the market meltdown of 2008. “We haven’t seen the full effects of this yet,” she says. “And I think, because of that, we haven’t seen the full response.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Rachel Notley's NDP [Alberta] government abandoned its climate plan in protest after the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project was paused. In fact, the Alberta government kept its provincial plan in place, and pulled out of the federal climate plan. Maisonneuve regrets the error.

Brennan Doherty is a Toronto-based writer. His reporting has appeared in the Toronto Star, VICE, TVO.org and elsewhere.