Jen Gerson: Kenney tried to get between Albertans and their mountains. Never do that

You have to live here for a while to feel that bone-deep distinction between conservationism and environmentalism.

Working as a writer and editor in Alberta as I do often requires the wearing of many hats. Sometimes, I write to Alberta as an Albertan; at others, I write about Alberta to those in Canada who find this province sufficiently unpredictable and fascinating to consider my work worth their time. From within, I'm often critiqued as some kind of lefty outsider and CBC hack, and a recent transplant, to boot. Heck, I've only lived here a decade. 

Yet when I take the other angle, I become the redneck convert, and a terrifying representative of Canada's Most Conservative Province™. My inbox is always fascinating to watch. 

The switch can usually be detected by the outlet I choose to write for, and here at The Line, I'm still trying to determine which hat I should don, the cowboy or the fedora. 

For this column, I will wear the latter hat in the hope that I can offer some insight into why Alberta is in such an extraordinary uproar over coal. 

Last May, the United Conservative Party government announced that it would end a 1976 moratorium on coal exploration on Category 2 lands. This dry classification doesn't do these slopes justice; Category 2 lands contain some of the most striking and best-loved landscapes in the province, encompassing that glorious liminal space between the rolling foothills and the first peaks of the Rocky Mountains. 

The province renounced that protection and declared some of these mountaintops open to exploratory leases sans consultation with any of the surrounding communities. It was if they operated on the assumption that Albertans would champion knocking off a mountaintop because, well, this province loves resource extraction, right? We even have groups that sell "I <3 Oil & Gas" T-shirts. 

Not quite. 

The announcement was met with horror, backlash, and a political mobilization that this province hasn't seen in several years. In an interview with 630 CHED, Kenney defended the decision, noting that the 1976 policy had been "completely superseded" by even more stringent environmental regulation, making the moratorium useless — even though the policy change was followed by a flood of exploration leases, which included preliminary road and permitting approvals to move forward. 

A full mine, Kenney noted, couldn't be approved without an exhaustive environmental review, and widespread consultation. 

Which rather begs the question: if the moratorium were obsolete, then why repeal it? Kenney's roundabout answer: "Thousands of Alberta families put food on the table because of the ... coal mining industry. I don't think those of us who live in the cities should look down on those folks. We should support them and respect what they do for a living, safely." 

While that's the kind of rhetoric that might fly when you're trying to divide, say, the urban elites of Toronto from the down-home folks of Grande Prairie, Edmontonians and Calgarians are not so easily separated from their beloved mountain ranges. Further, the most vociferous opponents to the UCP on this file turned out to be the "urban" folk of Turner Valley, Canmore, High River and Lethbridge. 

These are not exactly liberal havens, either. After months of festering backlash, including among its own angry base, the UCP announced it would reinstate its 1976 policy while it conducted a more fulsome consultation on Alberta's coal policy. 

Fair readers of the East, I must pause here. Perhaps you are, quite reasonably, confused. After all, Albertans don't care very much about the environment, as evidenced by their stubborn defence of the oil sands, is that not right? 


Well, it turns out that this is another one of those Albertan stereotypes that proves a little more complicated when you pick away at its skin. I'd argue that Albertans are better described as conservationists than environmentalists. Most of the people come here for work, but those who settle do so because they love the outdoors. There are very few Albertans who don't also ski, snowshoe, hike, camp, fish or hunt. The best part about Calgary is how easy it is to leave for a few hours, and even us urban elite writer-types will find ourselves moved by the sight of the Rockies rising over the Deerfoot on a cloudless day. It's the kind of sight that tempts an unwary driver to veer near off that highway and, as such, is almost a danger to health and safety. 

The mountains and the foothills are not merely beloved, they are sacralized. The concept of stewardship is intrinsic to the province's identity. The very thought of knocking off the top of a mountain is a heresy in a way that mining a naturally occurring tarry river in the far north is not. 

Of course, you have to live here for a while to feel that bone-deep distinction between conservationism and environmentalism — that latter word is loaded with a broader ideological meaning that associates it with left-leaning politics that is harder to align with the provincial character than a pure and deep love of the land for itself. 

There seems to be a bit of history of this province being populated by Ontarians who flee west, pick up a cowboy hat and a pair of boots, buy a big house in the ‘burbs, and embrace Albertanism with the zeal of the convert. But that's a shallow kind of faith. Picking up this identity well enough to feel it involves more than driving around in a pickup truck and preaching the gospel of low taxes. 

In fact, while most Albertans are supportive of oil and gas workers, and certainly appreciate the wealth those resources have attracted, we're paradoxically very wary of our own over-reliance on the oil and gas industry. Decent polling on the matter suggests that this discomfort affects as much as 80 per cent of the province, and is surprisingly cross-partisan. 

Further, while this government's desire to juice our capital investment stats is understandable … coal? Coal?! If this were some kind of ascendant industry that could secure our collective wealth for a generation we’d have to seriously weigh it as an option, but coal ain’t that.

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That's like trying to escape quicksand by flailing harder. What coal mining community in North America is a model endorsement for Alberta's future right now? Were we trying to emulate the incredible success of Wyoming, or Pennsylvania? 

For the few hundred jobs that a new coal mine might bring and the appreciable bump on a balance sheet, we're going to double down on the tail end of another dying industry? 

What mountain is worth that? 

I pose that question quite literally. Pick one. I'll wait. 

This government seems to have stepped back from this brink, at least momentarily, although the exploratory leases it issued in the past year have not been terminated. 

Meanwhile, the Alberta Energy Regulator, the body tasked with overseeing that rigorous environmental oversight we've all been promised, is laying off bodies to manage serious funding cuts, raising serious questions about its ability to do its job as effectively as it ought. 

They've promised to return with a new coal policy — with ample consultation this time. Well gee thanks, guys. In the meantime, maybe all you urban-dwelling policy wonks need to get out a bit more. Take a day off and go for a hike. 

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