Voters are waking up to the insanity of oil addiction


The Canadian province of Alberta is a pretty conservative place, or at least it used to be. Political analysts who follow developments there say it’s been comparable in the recent past to America’s so-called “red states” — somewhat similar to Idaho, with which it shares a border. But now — in the wake of an election that was held on Tuesday — the conservative party that’s held sway for more than four decades in Alberta has been voted out.

And oil has a lot to do with it. You may be aware that Alberta is the primary home of tar-sands oil — one of the dirtiest fossil fuels known to mankind. Since its discovery, the oil that was buried in these tar sands had mostly been too difficult and too expensive to extract. But in the 21st Century, better technology and sky-high prices for oil has made it much easier to mine and separate out the tar sands crude. That has led to an oil boom in Alberta — but also to environmental devastation, with massive bird and animal kills and lakes and other bodies of water destroyed by pollution. And then there’s the large contribution that the energy-intensive extraction of the oil and its eventual burning makes towards the warming of the planet.

Despite the downsides of the oil boom in Alberta, residents came to rightly believe that the big oil companies exploiting the tar sands simply weren’t paying their fair share, thanks to the policies of the entrenched Conservative Party. That may have fueled a surge at the polls for the ultra-liberal New Democratic Party, or NDP. which won a stunning upset.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

“We need to start down the road to a diversified and resilient economy. We need finally to end the boom-and-bust roller coaster that we have been riding on for too long,” NDP leader Rachel Notley, who is expected to succeed [Jim] Prentice as Alberta’s premier, said at a news conference.

The NDP has long been a marginal force in Alberta’s traditionally conservative politics, but recent public opinion polls showed its popularity surging. In the campaign, Ms. Notley attacked Mr. Prentice for reinstating provincial health-care premiums and being too cozy with oil-patch interests.

In a move that spooked some energy company executives during the campaign, Ms. Notley raised the specter of increasing royalties levied on oil and gas production, although she said that her party would only consider that once crude-oil prices recovered from recent lows.

She also signaled her party wouldn’t support a proposed Enbridge Inc. crude-oil pipeline, called the Northern Gateway, which would connect Alberta’s oil sands with a planned Pacific coast terminal in British Columbia, telling a local newspaper that “Gateway is not the right decision.”

This could have a huge impact in America. Notley’s new government is also opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline which aims to ship the heavy tar-sands oil from Alberta across the central spine of the United States to refineries and ports along the Gulf Coast. Although the final say on that project will rest with the Obama administration, it’s likely that the lack of support from the provincial government would make it easier for Washington to say “no” to the controversial project.

But I think the implications are even broader than that. Voters in Alberta are saying quite simply that they’ve had enough — and while oil is not as big an issue in every political jurisdiction, I think this is an attitude than can and will spread elsewhere. Indeed, in the state of Pennsylvania, the Republican governor’s favoritism toward Big Oil and Gas was a key reason that the state elected a Democratic governor in 2014, bucking the national trend.

The old ways aren’t working. In my home state of Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal is finishing up eight years that have been devastating to the environment, from the heartbreak of the massive BP oil spill to the giant hole in the ground at Bayou Corne. Jindal’s response to all of this has been to bend state policy even further to the will of Big Oil — even signing a bill to block the lawsuit that would have forced the energy companies to pay up for decades of destroying our wetlands. Despite this, Jindal had the nerve to take to the Wall Street Journal and describe the moderate-at-best policies of President Obama as a “radical environmental agenda.” That takes some nerve!

But now the casual corruption of energy companies’ tax breaks and wanton pollution has captured people’s attention, and it’s become a front burner issue. With climate change on voters’ minds as well, the insanity of our addiction to fossil fuels may finally be registering at the ballot box.

Read more about the Alberta election here:

Learn more about the problems with shipping oil by rail in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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