The office towers in downtown Calgary, the headquarters of the country’s oil industry, were shrouded in smoke again this week. It’s now a familiar scene: some days it’s so thick you can’t make out the next building through a boardroom window. The Bow River meanders through a haze so dense children stay inside and malls swarm with people eager to escape the smoke and the heat that often accompanies it. 

This is oil country. A place where more than 100,000 people rely directly on the patch for their livelihood and many more rely on the spillovers. Where the five biggest oilsands producers alone raked in an eye-watering $35 billion last year. Where the oilsands contributed $11.6 billion to the government through royalties. The government, in turn, gives some of the largesse back through gas tax breaks for Albertans. 

Flyover photo of an industrial facility emitting white smoke or vapour.
Alberta is Canada’s most oil-dependent province and the oilsands are an enormous economic driver. The industry also creates carbon pollution that has been shown to increase wildfire activity. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

For a moment in time, before the country burned and the smoke laid dense on the land, it felt like oil country was going to try to change. We would encourage the fossil fuel companies to shift. We’d encourage citizens to change and help them do so. We’d look to renewable energy and expanding the electrical grid. We would face the challenge thoughtfully, before it was too late to do things with foresight and compassion. 

The NDP, elected provincially in Alberta in 2015, brought in a slew of policies, from speeding the end of coal-fired power to carbon pricing and the introduction of power purchase agreements to stimulate the boom in renewables. The United Conservative Party (UCP) came to power in 2019 full of bluster in support of oil and gas. But it still kept or tweaked many of those policies, including a revamped carbon price for large emitters and the shift of renewable energy power purchase agreements to the private sector. 

We had less time than we thought.

Now the hurricanes stack up in the oceans, hungry for landfall. The world burns. B.C. is on fire. Droughts ravage the Prairies. Pakistan floods and bakes. Vast swaths of the Earth are too hot to bear. Even Europe sizzles. You check the air quality as often as you check the temperature.

The Bow River in downtown Calgary is obscured by thick wildfire smoke as it winds its way under the Peace Bridge.
Heavy smoke from northern Alberta forest fires came south to blanket the Bow River area in downtown Calgary this spring. Tens of thousands of Albertans were forced to flee their homes while fires raged during the recent provincial election. Now the province has halted renewable projects as fires consume B.C. Photo: Larry MacDougal / The Canadian Press.

It feels like that moment of change has passed, leaving a heaviness, thick as the smoke, in its wake.

Ask most people and they’re likely to know the feeling. This summer feels like a massive shift, but the turning point came earlier. 

Even while heading to the polls, Alberta burned

Alberta was on fire during its provincial election this spring, as the New Democrats and the United Conservative Party battled in a tight race. Communities evacuated and those particular dreams of place — the first giggles of a baby in the room down the hall, growing old in your own home — were yanked from the grasp of many. Indigenous communities were forced to flee land imbued with the memories of countless generations and to return to an unrecognizable place. 

At one point almost 30,000 Albertans were displaced by fires. Homes were lost in Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Yellowhead County and East Prairie Metis Settlement, to name a few. The day of the election, 3,500 Albertans were out of their homes, fleeing the flames. Alerts were posted for northern communities in the boreal. The next day, Fort Chipewyan was ordered to evacuate. 

And no one really talked about it. The parties plodded along with a collective lack of vision that confused the senses. Climate change wasn’t even a minor topic, and talk of supporting the oil and gas industry barely acknowledged a transition away from it. Help for workers as a global economy shifts away from fossil fuels was viewed as a toxic slur against the province and its way of life. 

The party platforms were largely devoid of talk of climate change. The UCP touted its plan to, hopefully, get to net zero by 2050, without any firm commitments to do so. The NDP looked like it wanted to hide from any talk of climate and carbon. The fires were talked about as an isolated crisis that would be handled in the usual, short-term-crisis sorts of ways — money, food, shelter, support and return to normal. 

Against a visceral backdrop of the climate crisis, Alberta shifted its gaze downward and watched its collective shoes. 

Suncor among oil giants reversing course on energy transition

In another sphere, where the public good has always taken a back seat to the bottom line, the oil and gas companies occupying the towers in the smoke-filled heights also turned away. 

Investments in wind and solar and a focus on what comes next fell by the wayside as soon as the combination of the war in Ukraine and a post-pandemic bacchanal swelled the price of a barrel. Profits soared and the companies poured that money into shareholders and debt and the core of their businesses. 

Prices that were in the gutter for years suddenly surged to new heights. Barrels were selling for more than $100. The four largest producers — Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources, Imperial Oil and Cenovus Energy — spent $15.8 billion on share buybacks in the first three quarters of 2022.

Dark muddy brown surface seen from the air cris-crossed with offroad tracks.
Oil giants, including Suncor, the operator of this oilsands mine, have shifted away from investments in renewables to focus on their core businesses as profits soar. The company’s CEO, said there has been a “disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition.” Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Suncor, the largest oilsands producer dropped its investments in renewables in 2022 and hired a new CEO who said the quiet part out loud just as the fires burned down parts of B.C., lamenting Suncor had too much focus on the future and a “disproportionate emphasis on the longer-term energy transition” while the company announced nearly $2 billion in quarterly profits. 

It’s not the only company across the world to yawn away old promises of a better future. 

BP has paused its pursuit of renewables, Shell too. As soon as the profits soared, companies from across the world, not just Alberta, dropped their pledges and raced to exploit every last drop. 

Alberta’s pause halts growth of renewables

Meanwhile, during a rare break in Alberta’s smoky summer, the province announced it would pause approvals of all new renewable energy projects. No new solar. No new wind. In a place where oil and gas installations leach into the ground and sit rusting for decades, the government insisted it was hitting the brakes because it wants to make sure renewable projects clean up after themselves. 

The renewables sector had been booming. Billions in investment were pouring in without government intervention and subsidy. Alberta’s market-based system proved a strong lure to companies seeking renewable energy or the credits they could receive from funding them. It was a success. 

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But the government didn’t like to talk about it. It hid from the feel-good story. 

And then it pulled the plug. Billions put at stake. Uncertainty. And all without anything deserving of the word consultation — not with renewable companies, landowners or even the municipalities that wanted a review of the rules.

It would be easy to chalk it up to political theatre — a poke in Ottawa’s eye just as it tried to implement a net-zero electricity grid across the country — if only the stakes weren’t so high and the optics so bad. The province, pushing hard to support natural gas and strangling a burgeoning renewable industry in the process. 

A view of the Oldman River in southern Alberta, with wind turbines in the distance.
Wind turbines crowd the horizon in southern Alberta near the Piikani First Nation. The area just east of the Rockies is windy and has seen massive investments in wind farms over the years. Other areas of Alberta have seen a surge in solar installations. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

It’s a now familiar pattern in Alberta, where any effort by the federal government to reign in carbon pollution and meet international obligations is met with howls of outrage from the province. Even proposals to ensure a smoother transition for workers is seen as a violation. Those howls have increased and will continue to do so as more policies come down the federal pipeline.

No one solution, but governments and companies have choices to make as Calgary smoke lingers

There is culpability here. A study published earlier this year traced 37 per cent of the total area burned in wildfires in Western Canada and the United States between 1986-2021 to 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. 

The scale of the fires and the climate crisis are daunting for everyone. And so too are the lack of structural responses at a time when vision and empathy are required. It’s enough to leave individuals feeling powerless. Waiting for something, anything, to happen. 

That vacuum and the anxiety already seeded by the pandemic and fear of an unknown future, can be dangerous. 

No matter your view of the oil and gas sector, at the end of a long chain of decisions and dollars are people and you cannot simply rip people’s livelihoods from them. Canada is ripe for a conflagration, not of tinder dry forests, but of fear, resentment and anger. 

There is no one magic suite of options that will bring us back from the brink, certainly no easy ones. But there are plenty of solutions experts say could help. Doubling down on renewables — and yes, making sure they’re developed responsibly — doubling down on electrification, ending subsidies for fossil fuels and focusing on tested solutions rather than technological saviours that haven’t been tested or invented. 

Alberta can’t act on its own. Global forces will shape the future, not Canada’s oil country and those shifts are accelerating. There is opportunity to tether a future economy to those international forces rather than cling to an industry too often conflated with an entrenched way of life. There is an opportunity to ensure workers have the skills they need to follow those transitions rather than lose it all and spiral into anger. 

Here in oil country, it’s unclear whether there is the political will, or the ability, to overlook the easy money flowing into government and industry — at least for now. 

If only there was a clearer sightline on the horizon. 

Maybe when the smoke clears.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

Western Canada is on fire — again

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