On the defensive in Alberta: a closer look at a series of UCP missteps

The United Conservative Party government has been in backtrack city over the past month. In our latest newsletter, we dive into what’s happening with Keystone XL, Alberta Parks and coal mining

These days it seems like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is constantly on the defensive.

In the span of one month, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government’s plans for Keystone XL, coal mining and parks have been upended by a combination of political missteps, citizen outrage and international action.

Let’s start with the biggie: U.S. President Joe Biden used his first day in office to scrap the permit for Keystone XL in what may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the controversial pipeline project.

TC Energy, the company behind Keystone, responded by halting construction and warning of upcoming layoffs. The Biden decision is also disruptive news for the Alberta government, which made a $1.5 billion investment in Keystone in addition to a $6 billion commitment for a loan guarantee.

Kenney said the province would pursue legal avenues for compensation should the project be cancelled, but acknowledged Alberta taxpayers could still be left footing a $1 billion bill. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pledging to fight to save the pipeline — yes, while moving forward with his net-zero emissions plan — but the chances of it getting built seem increasingly dim. (Kenney wants Trudeau to threaten the U.S. with trade sanctions.)

The Keystone news wasn’t the only recent story that had the Alberta government scrambling. As reporter Ainslie Cruickshank detailed in a new piece for The Narwhal, Alberta is walking back some (but definitely not all) of its plans for open-pit mining in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

It all started when Alberta rescinded a decades-old policy that prevented surface mining for coal in ecologically sensitive and culturally valuable areas. The move unintentionally united ranchers, First Nations and country music stars, all of whom slammed Alberta for the “backwards move.” In response, the UCP government made a show of scrapping 11 leases issued last month and vowed to halt future coal leases in contentious areas. But because some mining can still go ahead, onlookers say the government’s move is more politics than substance — even if it does show “they are feeling the pressure.”

Next up in backtrack city: parks. Just before Christmas, the province said 170 sites slated for closure or removal from the Alberta Parks system wouldn’t lose their protections after all. The UCP had been trying for months to make the case that its cost-saving plans wouldn’t put any park sites in jeopardy, but the NDP, environmental groups and Albertans weren’t buying it.

Central to the Alberta government’s woes is a lack of consultation, especially with First Nations. That doesn’t bode well in an evolving political reality that makes it more challenging than ever for major industrial projects like pipelines and coal mines to gain public approval.

And as we saw, public disapproval can lead to one awkward backpedal after another.

Take care and don’t forget to take a hike,

Arik Ligeti
Audience engagement editor

P.S. After the resounding success of our Site C dam online event, we’ve turned our attention toward the folks looking at the role Canada’s natural landscapes can play in the fight against climate change. More than 1,000 people have already registered for the Feb. 2 event and seats are limited, so register ASAP to guarantee your spot at this interactive discussion, inspired by our Carbon Cache series.

The Narwhal in the world

Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Amazing news alert! Our wonderful Alberta reporter Sharon J. Riley won the Allan Slaight Prize for Journalism for her story in The Walrus detailing how Canada’s medical systems strip seniors of their autonomy.

Sharon’s must-read story was selected from an original list of more than 50 longform features published in The Walrus. It’s an, ahem, prestigious prize that honours an independent journalist whose writing addresses some of the most important topics of our time. Sharon is a five-star reporter, writer, colleague and human. We couldn’t be happier for her.

And now, for more good news…

Maclean’s released its annual Power List of Canada’s 50 most influential movers and shakers. And guess who made the cut? That’s right, The Narwhal was praised as one of the many amazing independent media outlets breaking new ground in Canada!

As our editor-in-chief and co-founder Emma Gilchrist told Maclean’s: “We hear a lot about what’s going wrong in the Canadian media landscape, but there’s a lot that’s going right, too.” Amen to that! And if you want to support other independent news outlets, check out these founding members of Press Forward, an organization that’s helping to point the way toward a brighter future for Canadian journalism.

A tale of two toques

screencaps of CTV story with Emma Gilchrist and Arthur Soles

Here at The Narwhal, we’re dedicated to reporting on important transboundary environmental issues — pipelines, water pollution … cellphone charges? Emma ended up on the other side of the interview when she raised an important issue plaguing the people of Victoria: erroneous cellphone charges due to the city’s proximity to the U.S.

After tweeting about this pricey problem, she was invited to speak about it on CTV News. Emma wore her stylin’ Narwhal toque — gotta represent — and lo and behold, when CTV headed out to find other locals to comment on the issue, they spotted Narwhal member Arthur Soles, who was wearing his brand-spanking-new Narwhal toque. It’s obviously the latest trend.

Wanna get in on the action? Sign up to become a member for $20 a month and we’ll send one right to your doorstep for use in any future TV interviews (and it’ll keep you cozy, too).

This week in The Narwhal

After the fire: the long road to recovery

burnt aftermath of Elephant Hill fire

By Stephanie Wood

A B.C. Indigenous group has been working to bring its territory back to life and create a replicable model for restoration following the devastating 2017 Elephant Hill fire. But it can take a century for forests to recover and climate change adds to the timeline. Read more.

‘Transparency is critical’: buried report raises questions about oilsands bird monitoring program

Great Blue Heron stands on a rock before a pink sky

By Sharon J. Riley

A previously undisclosed expert analysis, obtained through a freedom of information request, details how Alberta’s efforts to prevent waterfowl from landing on tailings ponds ‘maximizes the appearance of bird protection while appearing to impede actual bird protection.’ Read more.

Panel recommends Yukon bring mining into the 21st century. Here’s what you need to know

Placer mines along the Indian River, near Sulphur Creek

By Julien Gignac

After years of public consultation and hearings, an independent panel says modernizing mineral development rules in the territory will better respect Indigenous Rights and the land — and ensure all Yukoners benefit from the use of natural resources. Read more.

What we’re reading

"Discovery Islands salmon farms seek judicial review of federal phase out" from CBC "The Art of Repeal: Illustrating Trump's toxic legacy — and Biden's daunting task ahead" from Grist

bernie sanders at inauguration wearing Narwhal toque

Current mood.

Put on your toque and mittens and send this newsletter sign-up link to all the fashion icons you know.

Ontario has found 11 species at risk along the planned route of Highway 413: documents

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The Narwhal’s newly minted Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.