How Oil Hijacked Alberta’s Politics: Behind the Curtain With Former Liberal Leader Kevin Taft

Oil's Deep State Kevin Taft Alberta DeSmog Canada

For decades, Kevin Taft has served as a thorn in the side of Alberta’s provincial government.

In his new book, Taft, who served as a Liberal MLA between 2001 and 2012, and as leader of the Alberta Liberal Party — the province’s official opposition — between 2004 and 2008, maintains his course.

Oil’s Deep State: How the Petroleum Industry Undermines Democracy and Stops Action on Global Warming — in Alberta, and in Ottawa is a controversial read.

Notably the book implicates the Alberta NDP, which was elected in 2015 with promises to challenge the sector’s dominance over political processes. To help explain why that didn’t happen, Taft deploys concepts of institutional capture and deep state — a term used when institutional capture occurs with several different entities and is maintained for a long time.

It’s a challenging and insightful read, one that will likely spark many debates about how we talk and think about the oil and gas sector.

DeSmog Canada chatted with Taft about the book.

What inspired you to write Oil’s Deep State?

When you’re in the middle of action in politics, you don’t necessarily see the bigger picture. You’re fighting the local battles.

After I left politics in Alberta, I was invited to go to Australia to talk about the effect of the fossil fuel industry on democracy, because they have some real concerns there. That prompted me to begin reflecting on my own experience.

Essentially, the book is an account of the collision between the oil industry and global warming, and how democracy is caught in the middle of that.

What I think I bring to the discussion is a sense of how the oil industry has systematically set out to capture a whole series of supposedly independent, democratic institutions like political parties — both governing and opposition — certain components of the civil service, departments of energy and environment, regulators, universities and so on. And how by capturing these and taking a coordinated approach to managing them or overseeing them, the oil industry has actually formed a kind of state within a state when it comes to its own interests: what I call a “deep state” or “oil’s deep state” in this particular case.

Did you sense these powers while in politics?

Oh, very much. Everywhere I would turn as a leader of the opposition, I would be facing or dealing with the oil industry. Whether I was trying to raise money to pay for the political party, or walking through the lobby of the legislature and watching lobbyists for the oil industry literally sometimes hugging government officials, or when I was at the university watching millions of dollars flow from the industry into the universities, and so on.

Of course, when you’re in the middle of the battlefield, you don’t necessarily see the bigger picture.

But when I backed away, I thought ‘gee, political parties should be independent, universities are set up supposedly to be independent, regulators by their very mandate are supposed to be independent.’ And yet over and over, I saw they weren’t.

The book touches on universities quite a few times in terms of how they’ve channelled some of this influence. What is it about institutions like the University of Calgary and University of Alberta that have them serving as such key leverage points for industry?

Universities, in the public mind, are seen as independent. They’re seen as thought leaders.

If you hear comments from a corporate spokesperson, your filters are sort of up.

But if you hear similar comments from a university academic, they simply have more credibility. That makes universities, ironically, a particularly tempting target for organizations wanting credibility.

The core of the debate on global warming is science. The universities, starting in the 1960s, were the foundation of much of the scientific research underlying global warming. To win the battle and delay action on global warming, the oil industry needed to gain influence in universities to smother or distort or counter the science that was coming out. And they succeeded substantially.

In the book, I drill into a very interesting legal case: the Bruce Carson illegal lobbying trial.

Carson was senior adviser to Stephen Harper in the prime minister’s office and then he went to a very generous-paying position at the University of Calgary to set up an institute there. He was ultimately charged with illegal lobbying on behalf of the oil industry in relation to that position at the university. During the trial, all kinds of behind-the-scenes documents came forward: e-mails, minutes, bank statements, corporate plans and so on that were never meant to be public.

When you drill into those, you can see how systematic the oil industry was and how many millions of dollars they poured into pulling together federal, environment, energy and provincial officials at the highest level. Politicians, academics: all of that to try to build an energy strategy that had fossil fuels at the middle of it.

This is not happy news for me. I live in Alberta, and have lived pretty much my whole life in Alberta.

There’s no question that Alberta and Canada have prospered and done well because of oil. I’m not happy that using oil is causing a global crisis.

But it is true. It is the reality. And we need to deal with that. As long as the oil industry has so much sway over our governing institutions, we’re not going to deal with it effectively.

A lot of people had high hopes for the Alberta NDP when they were elected, seeing as they’d spent a long time talking about the need for things like increased royalties and more focus on tailings reclamation. What do you think happened? Did they have that much of a choice, or were they effectively destined to get swallowed up in this deep state?

I have a lot of sympathy for Rachel Notley. She was elected as premier when nobody, including herself, really expected it. She and her cabinet stepped right into a scene that had already been set.

Her closest advisers in the civil service were very tight with the industry. You could almost say the Alberta Energy Regulator is run by the industry: it’s financed by industry and the chairman is a former industry executive. She was surrounded by pro-oil forces.

At the same time, I would have liked a little stiffer stance on things like royalties. We’re in a situation today in Alberta where the government sells almost three million barrels of bitumen to Big Oil every day. Three million barrels every day. But the Alberta government earns more from gaming and alcohol sales than it does from bitumen royalties. That’s how far out of whack the royalty system is.

The New Democrats really did nothing to change that. I was disappointed in that. I think their move on the carbon tax is very good. I support that. But I think they’ve made an error. It’s easy for me to say from where I am. But they’ve made a mistake in turning pipeline expansion into the live-or-die priority.

Here’s the key point: the interests of the oil industry are not the same as the interests of the people of Alberta. We’ve tended to forget that in Alberta. Unfortunately, I feel like the New Democrats — who had a heroic reputation in opposition — have forgotten that.

What do oil industry interests look like in a day-to-day context?

When I was leader of the opposition, the pressure from the industry was just brutal.

Let me just preface this by saying the oil industry is filled with lots of wonderful, capable people. I don’t want to demonize the individuals. And some of them became friends and real supporters. But at the end of the day, their interest is in producing and selling oil. Oil, when it’s burned, produces carbon dioxide, which is changing our climate.

When I was in politics as leader of the opposition, I had some pretty tough, confrontational meetings where energy executives are really raked me over the coals for taking a stand on higher royalties, for example.  

I’d get called into meetings. They’d pound the table at times, making the coffee cups bounce as they try to intimidate me. You feel that pressure. I’m not saying I wasn’t influenced by that. Of course you feel that pressure.

It was a little bit of a different a debate in 2008. Interestingly, while I was under that pressure, so was Ed Stelmach, who was the leader of the Progressive Conservatives. And so were the New Democrats. All three political parties took a stand in 2008 for higher royalties. I’m not a hero in this at all. You feel those pressures.

But gosh, I wish that the New Democrats hadand just taken a little bit more of an independent, arm's-length tact from the industry when they got elected.

You conclude the book by pointing to the zero-emissions movement and the opportunity in that for people to coalesce and make bigger demands of governments. Are there examples that you look toaround in Canada or around the world which give you hope that this could work?

Sure. British Columbia, when they brought in their initial carbon tax 10 or so years ago, were world leaders.

You saw a fairly rapid response: emissions began to decline for a period of time. Then, the lobbyists and oil industry got their hold on the governing party and blocked advances in the carbon tax. I take heart from the election of the Greens to their position in holding the balance of power in B.C.

Europe is miles ahead of Canada in driving down emissions.

I don’t expect change to come inside Alberta now. Change will be driven into Alberta from outside. It’s going to be very painful for this province, because we have not prepared for the obvious reality that’s coming, which is the end of the fossil fuel industry. It will be phased out.

And we will either manage that phase-out or we will fight it. And if we manage it, then there’s a healthy transition ahead. If we fight it, it’s just going to be awful here.

Image Illustration: Carol Linnitt. Photos: Oilsands by Kris Krug and Alberta legislature by Wikimedia Commons.

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