Kenney Unveils Fossil ‘War Room’, Faces Criticism on Carbon Tax Repeal, Wildfire Impacts
Opinion & Analysis
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the cost but few details of his much-touted, C$30-million oil and gas “war room” Friday, prompting immediate pushback from the environmental groups he vowed to target during the recently-concluded provincial election campaign.
“We’ll be looking to collaborate with experts in communications in locations in key media markets around the world,” he said in a prepared statement, flanked by top federal fossil lobbyist Tim McMillan and largely-debunked fossil blogger Vivian Krause. “The deliverable is to expand public support for Canada’s vital energy industry.”
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Kenney declined to take questions on the war room plan, saying only that details will be coming soon. CBC says the PR campaign “will be funded in part by levies on major industrial emitters in Alberta, with $10 million repurposed from the existing Alberta government advertising budget.”
The announcement prompted an immediate response from Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, reminding Kenney that shooting the messenger won’t solve the problems facing Alberta’s fossil economy.
“We all understand wishing that the oil boom could go on forever as if climate change didn’t exist, but that’s not the world we live in,” Stewart said. “Jason Kenney can spend $30 million on political theatre to try to distract us from the deadly seriousness of climate scientists’ warnings, but that won’t keep wildfires, heat waves, or floods from getting worse or stop the seas from rising. Shooting the messenger might make for great election campaign rhetoric, but ignoring inconvenient truths does nothing to prepare Alberta for the coming transition off fossil fuels.”
Kenney took the opportunity to renew his overheated claims about “foreign-funded radicals” driving homegrown opposition to expanded tar sands/oil operations, in one case singling out an individual organizer who’s been constantly targeted by louder elements of the fossil lobby. But behind the rhetoric, there have been small signs over the last week to 10 days that his newly-installed government might be moving more cautiously than advertised as a self-styled fossil sector defender—and will continue to run into reasoned critiques of its promise to defend an industry entering its sunset.
The most recent is Kenney’s half-step back from a campaign promise to abandon the oil production cap the Notley government introduced in a bid to stabilize the price of Alberta crude oil exports. He had previously talked about letting the cap expire at the end of the year. Now, with the Line 3 pipeline postponed once again—and no “foreign-funded radicals” to blame for an appeal court decision in Minnesota—Kenney is trading in his fire-breathing zealot persona for careful administrator.
“Our government will have to proceed cautiously,” he said Friday, adding that his government “cannot allow” a severe price differential between Alberta oil and market prices.
Then there was the Globe and Mail analysis by University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, arguing in late May that Albertans were in for a surprise if they expected to wake up at the end of the month in a province free from carbon taxes.
“It’s an understandable perception: The United Conservative Party, after all, won the last election in no small part because of its opposition to such policies. A vow to ‘scrap the job-killing carbon tax’ resonated with many, and Premier Jason Kenney has styled himself ‘Canada’s fiercest carbon-tax killer’,” Tombe recalled.
“There’s just one problem. In action, Mr. Kenney is no such assassin—and his government won’t scrap the tax, certainly not any time soon.” Ultimately, Kenney’s United Conservative Party “isn’t killing Alberta’s carbon tax—it’s only shrinking it, changing it, then hiding it from view.”
Kenney’s Bill 1, An Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax, did remove the surcharge from gasoline, and from natural gas for home heating. But “Alberta will continue to levy a carbon tax on more emissions than any other province: specifically, a $30-a-tonne charge on nearly 140 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from the province’s largest emitters, including oil sands projects, power generators, petrochemical facilities, and more. This represents half of Alberta’s emissions and roughly one-fifth of Canada’s total,” Tombe writes.
“In short, a carbon tax remains central to Alberta’s climate policy, even under the UCP. In a political environment lacking in nuance and rife with partisanship and hyperbolic rhetoric, this fact deserves attention.”
Tombe’s analysis shows Alberta now applying a carbon tax to half rather than two-thirds of its economy, reducing the rate from $30 to $20 per tonne, directing the proceeds to technology initiatives and Kenney’s “war room” rather than tax reductions, and shifting fossil subsidies to favour dirtier tar sands/oil sands operations rather than cleaner ones. That latter feature is “unfortunate,” he says, since “it distorts private investment and business decisions, and undermines some of the incentive to lower emissions. It is better for policy to be neutral, and for governments to keep the playing field level.”
But “ultimately, carbon pricing remains a centrepiece of Alberta’s climate policy, and for good reason: It’s generally the most cost-effective way to lower emissions because it leaves decisions over how and whether to lower emissions to individuals and businesses, rather than to government. So carbon taxes, in one form or another, are here to stay.” Which means that, for Kenney, “claiming victory over carbon pricing’s corpse, when the body is very much alive, is a disservice to all.”
Kenney’s UCP also faced criticism from health professionals last week, with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) connecting the carbon tax rollback with the impacts of the massive wildfires sweeping parts of the province.
“High levels of air pollution are harmful for everybody,” write CAPE Executive Director Kim Perrotta and board member Joe Vipond in the Edmonton Journal. “Nobody is immune, whether you voted for the NDP or the UCP, whether you are rich or poor. But they are particularly dangerous for very young children, elderly people, and those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart disease, and diabetes. People end up in emergency rooms, hospital wards, and graves.”
While Kenney helpfully claimed a couple of weeks ago that “carbon taxes don’t fight forest fires”, Perrotta and Vipond note the science tells a different story. “Several peer-reviewed studies have found that climate change has, in fact, increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and will dramatically continue to do so as the climate crisis worsens. In addition, many studies have demonstrated that carbon pricing does reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, which would, over time, have an impact on the wildfire situation in Canada.”
To protect Albertans from further harm, they conclude, “we need our leaders to acknowledge the role that climate change plays in extreme weather events and wildfires. We need to listen to the experts on the economy—economists—who have identified carbon taxes as the cheapest, most efficient way to fight climate change. And we need to utilize the other policies in our toolkit that are needed to keep global warming below 1.5°C, including methane reduction regulations, energy efficiency programs, renewable energy targets, and an accelerated phaseout of coal plants.”