Canada’s Land Of Tar Sands Just Elected A Left-Wing Government

CREDIT: The Canadian Press video screengrab

Something pretty crazy happened in Alberta, Canada, last night.

The province, known for its prolific oil reserves and strong conservative leanings, elected a left-wing government. Not only that, it elected a left-wing government by a landslide.

If you don’t know much about Canadian politics and want to understand how unprecedented this is, it’s useful to think of it as a comparison to Texas. As Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel put it on Twitter, abbreviations extended: “Imagine if Democrats took not only Texas Governor, but supermajority control of [the] Legislature and all state offices. That’s what [Alberta’s election] is like in Canada.”

CREDIT: The Canadian Press

As it happens, Alberta is “often thought as being the Texas of Canada” – that’s at least according to Ed Whittingham, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, a leading environmental and energy think tank in Canada. And just like oil-rich Texas, oil-rich Alberta is has grown accustomed to having strong conservative governance (the Progressive Conservative party has been in the leadership there for more than four decades).

Now with the votes in and counted for, Whittingham told ThinkProgress that Tuesday’s elections results would likely mean changes for Alberta’s oil country. He put an emphasis on “likely” – based on the left-wing New Democratic Party’s (NDP) policy platform, he said it’s “too early to tell” what they’ll do exactly – but there is hope for change particularly when it comes to mitigating human-caused global warming.

“What we hope they’re going to do is coming out the gate as tackling climate change,” Whittingham said. “That’s going to include somehow regulating the oil sands emissions.”

When Whittingham says oil sands, he’s talking about the thick mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen also known as tar sands. It’s not like regular oil, and producers must use what is called “non-conventional” methods of getting it out of the ground. Those methods are more carbon-intensive, meaning they emit more greenhouse gases than regular oil production.

There are currently regulations on carbon emissions from Canada’s tar sands reserves, but according to the Pembina institute, they’re very weak. Because of tar sands extraction, Canada’s energy industry recently became the largest producer of climate-change causing greenhouse gases in the country, surpassing transportation for the first time.

Whittingham said he’s hopeful that stronger climate policies will come out of the new NDP government, because tackling climate change is a specific tenet of the party’s platform. Newly elected NDP premier Rachel Notley has said that delaying Alberta’s climate change strategy is “profoundly irresponsible,” and has said she’d work with other provinces to come up with a more comprehensive strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

“[The NDP’s] position is that it wants Alberta to take leadership on the issue of climate change, and that’s something we applaud,” Whittingham said. “But the starting point is coming up with credible plans, and we don’t yet know what those might be.”

For now, signs do not point to radical changes, like stopping tar sands development altogether. Notley told Canadian media following her election that she planned on contacting key leaders in the energy industry to “work collaboratively” with them.

“What I said very clearly during the campaign is that, while we may believe that there’s some new consideration that needs to occur, that it will be done collaboratively and in partnership with our key job creators in this province,” she said.

One thing that’s for sure is that Notley is opposed to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project. She pledged to stop spending taxpayer money to lobby for it in Washington, D.C. She is, however, not opposed to other pipelines, arguing that they are a better alternative to crude-by-rail.

The environmental and energy policies Whittingham said he was hopeful for would not necessary have to do with pipelines or tar sands, though. If it were up to him, he said, he’d like to see stronger programs for energy efficiency, an acceleration of the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, and some sort of incentive program to replace those sources with renewables like wind and solar. He emphasized again that he’s not sure it will happen, but he does know one thing from the unprecedented election results: Progress is happening.

“It was very slow,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that, giving the gravity of these issues, we’re going to get to faster progress.”

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