One could divide Alberta up in various ways. First, as in most provinces and elsewhere, there is town and country, the old story of liberal cities and socially conservative hinterlands. And in the 2019 election the pattern held: the UCP dominated the countryside.
And then there’s north-south. The southern part of the province, subject to influxes of Americans largely from right-wing states, is much more conservative. Calgary has only three NDP MLAs out of 26 whereas Edmonton has only one UCP MLA out of 20.
Not so widely recognized is the division in the oil patch. Often the industry is thought of as a monolithic bloc, particularly perhaps by the left. But in fact there are two blocs with two different political attitudes.
On the one hand are the large corporations—the internationals and the big players in the tar sands: Big Oil. On the other hand is what we might call Small Oil. This includes smaller Canadian oil and gas companies and companies that provide services to the industry.
The former are inclined to adjust to the times, including recognizing and adapting to the reality that burning fossil fuels is a sunset industry. When former premier Rachel Notley announced her government’s climate change program, which included a cap on tar sands production and a carbon tax, executives from some of these companies stood alongside her. Some have long supported a carbon tax. A number of Big Oil firms have retreated from the tar sands, including Royal Dutch Shell, Koch Industries and Imperial Oil.
Small Oil, on the other hand, has nowhere else to go; it is locked into oil and locked into Alberta. So it digs in its heels and looks to right wing politicians for salvation. That, off course, means to the UCP. These are Jason Kenney’s people. This is largely where his party’s oil money comes from. By contrast, officers and board members of the oil and gas giants offer little largesse to the UCP.
Small Oil has always been a favourite in the province. That is largely why we have tens of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells without the money to properly reclaim the sites. In order to ease the fund-raising local businessmen required to start an oil company, they were allowed to delay the cost of cleaning up after themselves. Now much of the cost of reclamation for wells abandoned by insolvent companies falls on the taxpayer. Another chicken coming home to roost.
In any case, this is the oil industry we are stuck with politically. Not the one that’s attempting to meet the challenge of climate change, but the one in mutual dependence with the UCP, both parties clinging desperately to the past. This does not bode well for the future of Alberta nor for the future of Canada.