Resource decisions made in a crisis

“Never waste an opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Machiavelli, the author of The Prince (1532), seen as a reference for unscrupulous politicians, appears to be the go-to guide for the Alberta premier.

Jason Kenney and his cabinet must also be reading Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine for ideas. She describes the use of “shock therapy” to exploit a crisis to push through controversial and questionable policies. When citizens are distracted, most are unable to engage and develop an adequate response, or to resist effectively. It is a deliberate technique to discourage legitimate dialogue and to brutally force acquiescence.

The pandemic is being used to push through radical pro-corporate measures that are major concessions to the energy, forestry and mining sectors. Among other things this strategy includes:

  • The cessation of environmental reporting and monitoring requirements, which provide the benchmark for performance measures.
  • Speeding up approvals, even though no evidence exists that past review practices held up industry, which will ensure no public intervention occurs.
  • Rescinding rules for coal mining in the foothills and mountains, risking the integrity of the headwaters and the source of water for most Albertans.
  • Promoting a 13 percent increase in timber harvest, even though logging may not be sustainable at present levels.
  • Investing in questionable oil and gas companies and projects that private investors won’t touch.
  • Failing to diversify Alberta’s economy beyond extractive industries, which ignores the province’s future.
  • Cutting 184 parks and provincial recreation areas, especially in the foothills, clearing the way for industrial development and privatization.
  • Ignoring extensive public consultation, advice and progress related to land-use plans, which alienates concerned Albertans.

This tsunami-like unravelling of environmental policies and regulations by the Alberta government is ideological, not logical or rational.

Presenting this as “it’s either the environment or the economy” is a Hobson’s choice, a false and misleading dichotomy. We can’t ignore the economy, but to ignore the environment (or give it lip service instead of real protection) will bite us badly. Alberta will suffer when ethical investors bail from a Wild West business model. Landscapes with ecological integrity protect and buffer us from floods, drought and biodiversity loss, as well as provide a suite of economic advantages for recreation, agriculture and tourism. Squander that, and we undermine the most sustainable parts of our economy in favour of a short-term liquidation sale.

We can choose to cut more trees, mine more coal or extract more oil and gas, but we can’t have all of these and still retain functional, ecologically intact landscapes.

It’s not even clear if more cutting, digging or drilling is economically beneficial for Albertans, given the dismal track record of undercharging for rents, royalties and reclamation levies. We taxpayers are already stuck with the bill for abandoned wells because of this flawed governance.

When ideology prevails over planning, we should fear the results. Alberta needs a systematic assessment of resource availability coupled with analysis of compatibility with other provincial responsibilities, such as maintenance of water quality, watershed protection to ameliorate floods and drought, fish and wildlife protection and impacts on existing recreation and business interests.

That type of public interest planning would help us understand what is in the realm of the possible for resource development. It could also provide a measure of the impacts, assess mitigation and address true cost accounting.

Axing environmental protections, assuming it will be our economic salvation, isn’t a strategy — it’s a surrender. To do so in a pandemic is putting the cart before the horse, or the coal mine before the loss of native trout, logging before downstream flooding, and more oil before air and water pollution.

Lorne Fitch is a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist from Alberta.

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