In Alberta, a debate about everything except the only thing that counts

Not a single question about the oil sands or natural gas

Jason Franson/CP

Nothing matters more to the Alberta economy than oil and gas. Nothing matters more to the Alberta environment than oil and gas, either. You could argue, really, that nothing matters more to Alberta writ large, to its people or its future, than oil and gas and how those resources are developed. These are not particularly right wing or left wing things to say. They’re just facts. But you wouldn’t know anything about oil and gas from having watched Thursday’s leaders’ debate in Edmonton.

By the standards of an Alberta election, Thursday’s event was a lively one. The main candidates, Premier Alison Redford and Wildrose challenger Danielle Smith, sparred gamely, and the also-rans were by turns punchy (Liberal Raj Sherman) and serious (NDP Leader Brian Mason). The four leaders fought over health care, deficits and low-level corruption. They touched on no-meet committees, seniors’ issues and education. They debated everything, really, except the one thing that really matters in Alberta, energy and energy policy.

Over 90 minutes of back and forth, the four all but ignored climate change, upgrading, the local environment, resource royalties or what exactly would happen to their plans if oil prices were to tumble again. They were helped in this by the media panel running the event, which asked, all of no questions that directly pertained to the oil sands or natural gas. (They ignored cities, too, which must have had Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in a tither).

“I don’t get it,” University of Alberta economist (and Macleans.ca contributor) Andrew Leach said Friday. “I wish I had an answer for (why energy gets ignored). When you look at all of the statistics, you would think that would be as big as a focus (as anything else).”

Some of those statistics, according to Leach: Oil sands royalties represent 10 per cent of the Alberta budget right now. They’re forecast to hit 20 per cent over the next three years. As long as oil prices continue to climb, that’s not a problem. But if they were to fall for any reason, it could be a very big one. According to the government’s own projections, a $1 drop in the price of crude next year would mean $223 million less in projected provincial revenues that year.

Natural gas has already taken a tumble. “We had a budget that went through with a projection of $3.60 for natural gas. Natural gas is at two bucks,” Leach says. “Every ten cents off the natural gas price is $28 million out of the Alberta budget. We’re down a buck sixty, so that’s roughly a half-billion hole in the budget just because of a decrease in the natural gas prices. Nobody’s talking about that.”

Nor were they talking about the bigger overarching issue here, which is whether selling non-renewable resources to pay for annual expenses like health care and education is really such a good idea in the first place. (You could make a pretty good argument, in any case, that it’s a monumentally un-conservative one.)

This is just scratching the surface. Pipelines, the environment, global image, sustainable growth: Almost every major issue in Alberta over the next, say, two plus decades, will be wrapped up in oil and gas. So why was energy management so absent from Thursday’s debate? Kevin Taft, a former provincial Liberal leader, blamed the format itself: “I was surprised the panelists never raised those issues.” And if the panelists don’t raise them, he noted, it’s hard for the candidates to freelance.

In any case, it was pretty jarring. When you read about Alberta anywhere other than Alberta, the only thing you ever read about is oil. You wouldn’t expect the same to be true inside the province. But it shouldn’t be the opposite either.

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