Jason Kenney vs. the Plimsoll Line
Opinion & Analysis
Eagle-eyed editors are apt to have aneurisms whenever journalists mix metaphors and mangle similes, but in special circumstances some style busting can convey more than orderly facts and logic.
A case in point? In cowboy parlance, it turns out, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney proved to be “all hat but no horse” when it came to roping and tying down the ill-fated Keystone XL pipeline. Now, after risking some C$7 billion of taxpayer funds on that folly, it appears he may soon be riding out of town on a one-trick Rocinante that is too stubborn to venture near windmills, or drink water below the Plimsoll line.
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Let me show how all that makes sense, albeit along a slightly twisted path.
Readers will recall that Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) won a majority victory in the last Alberta election aided by a series of prior dirty tricks, by promising to balance the provincial books, and by decrying the rival NDP for failing to abet every conceivable measure to increase future bitumen output from tar sands/oil sands projects.
Waving his Stetson from the wheel of a Tory-blue monster truck as it drove onto his Calgary victory platform, he lost no time pledging to get the Keystone XL pipeline built (designed to pump every day an extra 830,000 barrels of viscous bitumen south to U.S. refineries), as well as tripling the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to an ocean terminal in Burnaby, B.C. He also demanded that Ottawa revive plans to build another bitumen pipeline, Northern Gateway, across northern B.C., and another, Energy East, from Alberta to a seaport refinery in New Brunswick.
Not content with these grandiose plans, Kenney condemned former premier Rachel Notley for nominally pledging to cap the province’s future tar sands/oil sands carbon emissions at 100 megatonnes per year—some 45% higher than in 2015. Later, he slashed taxes and royalty payments to help existing tar sands/oil sands players, launched a Supreme Court challenge to Ottawa’s carbon tax plan, and authorized leases for new coal mines on the eastern slope of the Rockies.
All that Texas-style, “big hat” bluster turned out to be blather.
The Keystone XL project has just been killed at the stroke of a presidential pen, and Kenney has conceded that the literally hollow Canadian section of that pipeline may be sold as scrap. The Northern Gateway and Energy East projects have been euthanized. The Trans Mountain expansion is only partially complete, facing stiff Indigenous and civil resistance and a dearth of fixed foreign crude purchasers.
And what did Kenney’s “one-trick pony” act earn Alberta? His provincial treasury will be receiving zero future revenues from the phantom pipelines he promised, and less from existing tar sands/oil sands producers. Oil majors have fled once-touted Alberta projects, and billions in sector investment capital galloped away with them. Even real cowboys in southern Alberta have openly rebelled against his reckless leasing of coal deposits upstream from their ranchlands.
Worse still, despite having the most attractive wind and solar potential in mainland Canada, Kenny dithered and dawdled on promoting Alberta’s renewable potential while sparing no effort or adjectives to flog bitumen exports. Getting on his high horse, it turns out, meant Kenney mounting the kind of doomed nag Don Quixote rode to tilt at ancient Spanish windmills.
And finally, what of the Plimsoll line reference? This relates to Jason Kenney’s most dangerous character flaw—his stubborn scorn for material fact and science.
Late in the 19th century, when Britain “ruled the waves” with the largest military and mercantile marine fleets on the planet, the country was rocked by societal safety clashes strikingly similar to the climate crisis battles today. In both cases, deeply entrenched commercial interests thwarted the common good; it took a half-century of mounting evidence for the true dangers to become widely evident; cowardly politicians withered in the face of glaring facts; and courts and tribunals sided with elites which had approved those appointed to them.
The result was decades of mounting, preventable tragedies stretching from London to every ocean on the globe. The cause was simple: thousands of often unseaworthy “coffin ships” were badly overloaded with cargoes, passengers, and crews, and predictably capsized in rough seas. (Some involved horrific mass drownings of freighters packed with immigrants bound for Canada or Australia).
The remedy was simple: paint a lateral line along both sides of each hull to show the maximum load limit based on calculations of marine engineers, then penalize or impound any ship with its line below water as it headed out of harbour.
But it took a valiant English member of Parliament, Samuel Plimsoll, to confront the shipping interests and win. At first, his only allies were the widows left destitute when their sailor husbands perished, often with children to raise in London’s slums. The sailors themselves were often press-ganged (kidnapped by private police), then treated as ship slaves who endured rotten rations, crude sanitation, and lice-infested bedding.
It took decades of port-by-port warfare before Plimsoll and his equally committed wife Eliza shamed the ship owners and insurers—with tragic and documentary evidence—into making the load line a feature of all British and eventually world-wide modern shipping. That now includes oil supertankers that can carry up to two million barrels in a single cargo.
Which brings us back to Jason Kenney. In a brazen, cringe-worthy press conference as news of the Keystone XL death leaked out, he alternated between raging about no respect, to pouting that he was woefully misunderstood in Washington, to boasting that the tar sands/oil sands giants had already made great strides in reducing carbon.
Wrong. Flat-out false. Dangerously devious. In fact, Alberta’s official plan is to increase tar sands/oil sands emissions by 25 megatonnes per year (up from 75 megatonnes in 2015), blowing through the 100-Mt. cap set by Notley. That output would completely eclipse any and all cumulative reductions in carbon intensity per barrel, and place those gains in the realm of statistical noise.
But for once, Kenny was utterly transparent in finally revealing to the nation just how pathetic his one-trick pony act is.
Like the pliant politicians British shipping moguls once bought and bullied into battling Samuel Plimsoll’s campaign to save countless sailors’ lives worldwide, Jason Kenney has dismissed all material facts and evidence in open defiance of climate change science. He has marshalled fellow politicians and compliant pundits in this cause, and even bankrolled with taxpayer dollars his own bogus ‘bunko squad’ to ferret out eco-enemies everywhere.
As if this were not grotesque enough, Kenney has dog-whistled the prospect of Alberta leaving the Canadian confederation if it is not granted its bitumen pipeline wish list. Most recently, he has demanded that Ottawa impose trade tariffs against the U.S. if President Joe Biden does not reinstate the Keystone XL pipeline permit.
This goes beyond audacity, even beyond arrogance. Kenny’s red-hot rhetoric counters reality itself, and borders on derangement. He does not seem to realize that he is defying half a century of cumulative climate science, the warnings of eminent economists like Sir Nicholas Stern and Mark Carney, and even oil industry giants like Shell, Total, Marathon, and Conoco-Phillips which have fled from their stakes in Alberta bitumen as if it is an element of Hell.
Climate scientists have universally agreed that our planet needs its own Plimsoll line, a danger mark beyond which no more global carbon can be loaded into the atmosphere. We have just completed the hottest decade since before homo sapiens first appeared on Earth. Humanity has a mere nine years to avert exceeding a further 1.5°C rise in average global temperatures.
This is why many esteemed science bodies have explicitly warned that any new tar sands/oil sands projects or related pipelines will push our planet beyond its carbon load limits, and into the realm of perpetual peril.
Jason Kenney treats this verdict as if it emanates from QAnon. But it is the Alberta premier who spins wild, global conspiracy theories, sees enemies (including scientists) lurking on every horizon, and has lost virtually every ally outside his own parochial precincts. Kenney bet the farm on bitumen, and lost.
Now he is like feudal England’s self-installed King Richard the Third, about to figuratively die on his own Alberta battlefield, forlornly crying out: “A pipeline! A pipeline! My kingdom for a pipeline!”
That wicked king’s body disappeared after his defeat and death at Bosworth Field in 1485, and was found only in the 21st Century—buried ignominiously under a future car parking lot. Sir Samuel Plimsoll was eventually knighted, and is still commemorated by the load limit line on marine vessels today.
Paul McKay is an award-winning investigative reporter and author. His reports have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Vancouver Sun. He owns a Chevrolet Volt, which he charges with his home solar array.