Alberta’s premier has, one hopes, learned the hard way.
Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society.” Today she might have added the corollary that “There is no such thing as social licence.” There is such a thing as compliance with regulations established by a duly constituted authority. And there is such a thing as acceptance in a competitive market by customers who are willing to pay for the product. And yet, well-intentioned people have come to think more is needed, namely approval from the self-appointed activists at the Social Licence Bureau. And thus has begun one of the costliest fool’s errands of modern times.
Alberta’s NDP government found itself goaded into an international snipe hunt for a social licence to operate its oil industry and get the product to market. Bear in mind that the industry complies with all available social, economic and environmental regulations, and that its product is desired by consumers across Canada and around the world. Yet Premier Notley became convinced that Alberta’s oil still lacked legitimacy because it was missing a so-called social licence.
Unfortunately, the same folks who convinced Notley of this also set themselves up as the arbiters of who gets a licence and who doesn’t. Climate activists hung out a shingle as the Social Licensing Bureau, and Notley played along.
In the belief that it would somehow bring the enemies of her province’s prosperity onside, she took aim at the economy, already reeling from the collapse in oil prices, and laid on hefty new climate regulations and a carbon tax. Coal-fired power is to be phased out and everyone in the province will have to swallow a hike in energy costs. None of this will make any difference to the global climate, of course, nor will it have more than a minuscule effect on air pollution. But that was never the point. A display of provincial self-flagellation and adoption of the boilerplate alarmist climate rhetoric was the apparent fee for a social licence for new pipelines and continued expansion of the oilsands.
We know how that worked out. Days after Notley’s announcement, President Obama killed the Keystone XL pipeline. Then, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau banned tanker traffic along B.C.’s north coast, killing new west-coast pipeline proposals, including Northern Gateway. B.C. Premier Christy Clark continues to drag her feet on supporting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to Vancouver. And eastern mayors, led by Denis Coderre of Montreal, launched a PR offensive against the Energy East pipeline.
Last week came a new humiliation: Premier Notley’s own federal party ignored her pleas and voted to support a process aimed at getting New Democrats nationwide to adopt the Leap Manifesto, which not only rejects all future pipelines but proposes to lock Alberta oil in the ground once and for all. She proudly waved around what she believed was her social licence, bought at a punishing price to Alberta, only to watch her own party tear it to shreds in front of her.
The premier has, one hopes, learned the hard way that if she wants to promote her province’s interests she cannot hope to do so by currying favour with irrational forces that openly seek the ruin of Alberta. She has to rise to the occasion and defeat them. Unfortunately their numbers include a lot of traditional NDP allies who have now made common cause with climate activists. Their aim, based on fallacious and extremist views about the social costs and benefits of fossil energy, is to stop the use of oil, gas and coal in Canada. They do not compromise, they only co-opt (and they do that quite effectively).
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will likewise have to learn the same lesson. All the preening and posturing at the Paris conference, and the infusion of alarmist climate babble into government talking points, will not prompt climate activists to ease up on Canada’s oil and gas sector. Instead, sensing weakness and internal division, they will now feel emboldened to step up their campaign. Trudeau needs to realize the special challenge of what he is up against. Alone among all major public policy issues, climate alarmism has made irrational extremism an essential fashion statement. Nobody wants to question even the looniest emanations from the climate movement for fear of committing a social faux pas. But climate alarmism is both unscientific and incompatible with Canada’s prosperity. Trudeau cannot avoid the need to stand up against it, even at the risk of sounding at times like his predecessor. In order to seek successful completion of a major pipeline to tidewater he needs to get in the ring with some of his new best friends and do to them what he once famously did to Patrick Brazeau.
It is time to recognize the obvious fact that our energy sector is a perfectly legitimate and respectable contributor to our economy, and that its ideological opponents will never support its existence no matter how many concessions they win. In other words, there is no such thing as a social licence, and the continued pursuit of one is an act of utter folly for Alberta and Canada.