Alberta Election 2012: Energy, Oil Little Talked About Issue In Campaign, To Observers' Dismay

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ALBERTA ELECTION OIL SANDS ENERGY POLICY
Energy policy has been a little talked about issue during the Alberta election campaign. (CP, AP) | CP, AP

CALGARY - University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach prepared a bingo game ahead of the provincial election leaders' debate, in which viewers could mark a box every time the politicians uttered energy-related phrases like "cap and trade" and "access to markets."

But any energy policy watchers who tuned in with their bingo dabbers ready were out of luck. Only a couple of the terms passed the leaders' lips during the event — "oilsands" and "world class," by Leach's initial tally, and the latter was in reference to health care, not environmental monitoring.

Leach said he was surprised, not only by his makeshift game's lack of success, but more generally by how little the provincial candidates have delved into energy policy throughout the campaign so far.

"Why aren't we answering the billion-dollar questions?" he asked, adding a lot of the attention thus far has instead been based on hundred-million dollar tax credit announcements.

Those are important, he said. But in a province whose economy is so driven by non-renewable resources "it seems like that's where the lion's share of the campaign should be."

Jack Mintz, at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, was similarly dismayed, tweeting on debate night: "Alberta debate and no one asked about energy strategy and the oilsands."

In an interview, he said he doesn't understand why questions over whom the NDP would support in a hypothetical minority government scenario would take precedence over questions over pipeline access, royalties, subsidies for green energy and upgrading raw oilsands bitumen in-province.

"To sort of miss that sort of discussion, given that this is probably one of the most important factors affecting the future of the province, is kind of hard to believe," he said.

Michael Tims, chairman of oilpatch investment dealer Peters & Co., said he hasn't seen energy issues as all that divisive during the campaign — at least between the two front runners, Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford and Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith.

Neither are proposing raising royalties on oil and gas companies, and both parties' platforms emphasize the need to diversify Canada's energy exports. The New Democrats differ, in that they want to tweak royalties to encourage oilsands companies to upgrade their bitumen in-province instead of exporting the raw product.

"I don't think anyone sees it as being a useful subject to bring up in the debate because they're not really in disagreement," said Tims, who doesn't consider himself overly partisan, but tends to lean toward the provincial Conservatives.

Industry would "love to see" higher natural gas prices, and a better price for the oil produced in Alberta, "but those aren't really policy matters. Those are market matters," he said.

During her six months as premier, Redford has spent a lot of time touting a Canadian energy strategy and has been an outspoken supporter of controversial pipeline proposals connecting Alberta crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Canada's West Coast.

On that count, Redford has the edge, Tims said.

"I'm not saying anything derogatory about Danielle Smith, but I think the premier really understands the industry well and has been extremely well received on visits to Ottawa, Washington and other places."

But on matters of property rights that are important to industry, the Wildrose has been much more outspoken in its position, Tims said.

Tims gets the sense the oilpatch is divided amongst the PCs and Wildrose, and that industry folks will likely make their voting decisions on matters other than energy policy.

Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the non-partisan environmental think-tank Pembina Institute, said he's been taken aback by how little energy and the environment has been discussed during the campaign so far.

"It's not in keeping at all with the importance of the issues to the province," he said.

Customers of Canada's crude exports have aired concerns about the environmental impacts of developing the oilsands — take much of the U.S. debate over Keystone XL, for example — so it would behoove each of the leaders to go into more detail about how they'll develop that vast resource responsibly, said Severson-Baker.

"None of them have put forward a comprehensive plan that would actually be up to the challenge that we're faced with right now, he said.

"Each party sort of has cherry-picked an issue and talked about it, but that doesn't represent a solution for this issue."

Severson-Baker said it's clear Albertans care about energy development and its associated environmental impacts, and he expects those topics figure more prominently in the final days leading up to the April 23 vote.

Leach said perhaps the leaders have been reluctant to delve too deeply into certain energy issues because of the "third-rail effect."

"The ghosts of the royalty review, so to speak, and the ghosts of the National Energy Program and all of these things come to the surface."

But, he said: "These are conversations we should be having."

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