The fossil industry and its boosters in the Alberta government are winning the battle on energy and climate by adhering to a “primary lesson in political communications”, former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft writes this week in an opinion piece for National Observer: that the public mind only has room for one big political story at a time.
Which means that, by successfully hammering away at an aggressive, aggrieved message on the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, Premier Rachel Notley wins twice, Taft says: by driving the narrative on the “supposed benefits of the pipeline” (evidence to the contrary be damned), and by producing a “zone of silence” for other stories the industry would just as soon not see told.
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“If these stories got the attention they deserve it could change the course of the pipeline debate,” he states.
“Perhaps the biggest story getting marginalized in the pipeline debate is the looming cost of environmental cleanup for Alberta’s oil industry,” Taft writes. “Canadians need to realize that the biggest environmental cleanup is at the source of pipelines, not their terminus. The cost to clean up a potential spill on the B.C. coast is a fraction of the cost to clean up the existing contamination in Alberta.”
In theory, Alberta fossils are liable for cleaning up after themselves. But in July 2015, the Alberta Auditor General reported that taxpayers were on the hook for C$20 billion, just to remediate the province’s tar sands/oil sands mines. “The Alberta Energy Regulator has internal estimates that the total cost of cleaning up all Alberta’s oil industry (conventional and oil sands) will run to $260 billion, which could crush the finances of Alberta’s government.”
Another untold story—which Taft documented last year in his book, Oil’s Deep State —is the astonishingly low royalty rate of 1.4% that Alberta’s five biggest tar sands/oil sands producers paid in 2016 for their access to a public resource. “When I asked an energy economist if Alberta’s royalty rates were unusually low he replied, ‘You can’t get lower than these rates without giving it away for free,’” Taft recalls. A third, related story is the large share of tar sands/oil sands profits flowing through Canadian companies to investors in the United States, China, and Europe.
“These are stories that should be brought from the margins into the headlines, from the zone of silence to the zone of public debate,” he writes. “That’s how healthy democracy works. The public has a right to hear them all, because long after the last barrel has been shipped to distant lands and the last dividend paid to distant shareholders, the costs will ultimately be theirs.”