By David Yager
Oilfield Services Executive Advisory – Energy Policy Analyst
April 18, 2018
In 1947 Winston Churchill opined, “Democracy is the worst form of government …except all the others”. This was shortly after the second world war, the rise of the Soviet Union, the middle of a civil war in China that would shape its future, and the early stages of multiple and often bloody struggles for independence across Africa. The warts of democracy paled in comparison to what was going on in the non-democratic world.
Seventy years later the best of the worst is still going backwards. Two bright lights of democracy in the past 100 years have been Canada and the United States. In their formative years settlers from all over left behind their problems and tribalism to carve a new, free and prosperous life in large and relatively unpopulated land. The immigrants fled all manner of distress, misery and oppression to seek political, economic and religious freedom. Why else would you voluntarily abandon family and history to seek a better life in the middle of nowhere?
They once called the U.S. a “melting pot” of mixed races, cultures and religions because they had left their old problems and battles behind to collectively build a new and better society and country.
But the recent actions of the government of British Columbia illustrates the problems caused by tribalism and demonstrates many modern North Americans forgot where they came from and why they left. Tribalism occurs when one group of a society intentionally persecutes another without regard to consequences. It is routinely exploited by ambitious politicians. This is the real problem for petroleum and pipe, and heaping scorn on John Horgan and Andrew Weaver or economically punishing the citizens of B.C. as revenge will not solve it.
Tribalism is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as, “a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do”. Most would agree that tribalism has been, and continues to be, the cause of problems and misery around the world.
How does tribalism manifest itself in Canada? When on a regional or social basis common emotions or beliefs are so powerful that facts or collateral damage no longer matter. The end overwhelms the means and consequences. There cannot be a better example than oil sands and pipelines. While examples of fact versus fiction are voluminous, here’s an excerpt from the Roy Green radio talk show on April 15 shortly after Premier Horgan, Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau emerged from their Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TME) chinwag in Ottawa.
A female caller from Burnaby stated with great confidence, “…they did some research and predicted with the pipeline we would not have any killer whales left.” Asked for clarification from the host she answered, “The increase in tanker traffic would be detrimental to the killer whales on the coast. Let’s not forget who they (TME) are run by – which is Enron. We can’t trust they would be around if there was a spill”.
Worse than we ever imagined. Enron is already dead. Haven’t heard about Enron since the Notley government blamed the much-vilified company for an alleged loophole in electricity generation contracts.
It is, of course, just another example of the absolute rubbish in the brains of too many people opposed to oil sands and pipelines. TME admits there would be about a 14% increase in shipping traffic in Vancouver harbor which accepts and dispatches about 3,000 big boats a year including cruise ships. But that’s not where the whales live, nor does it include other big boats in the Strait of Georgia like B.C. ferry sailings from Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver Island and the up the coast. The larger ferry sailings total about 60 a day or nearly 22,000 per year. This does not include smaller vessels serving the Gulf Islands.
When you put TME’s 444 annual sailings over the existing 25,000, TME would increase TOTAL large water craft traffic in the waterways originating in greater Vancouver by 1.8%, not 14%. Unless oil sands can somehow radiate an as-yet unidentified toxin through the tanker hull and kill whales by simply passing nearby, how a 1.8% increase in total large boat traffic will result in a 100% decline the killer whale population is incomprehensible.
But when tribalism trumps common sense or logic, facts don’t matter. This is something anyone who has tried to talk sense into the opponents of oil sands or pipelines has learned by now. Worse, using the internet and social media, opponents have been able to disseminate enormous quantities of misinformation. This is where “fake news” comes from. The device in your pocket regurgitates reams of it every time you turn it on. If it supports your own views or doubts, you believe it. Even if it is wrong.
Going back to the hardened opponents of TME, the impact of a theoretical dilbit spill (that in all statistical likelihood will never happen) might have on the waters and coastline of B.C. is far more important than quantifiable economic damage selling oil sands at a discount is having on their fellow Canadians and international investment. Tribalism at its best, or worst. The only thing that matters is me.
When the NDP and Greens campaigned against TME in the 2017 election, they put forward policies by which their political success was dependent upon inflicting direct economic damage on a neighboring province and fellow Canadians. They did this by exploiting economic ignorance, regional biases, and a mountain of mistruths and misconceptions about oil sands, pipelines and alternative energy sources.
Wow. I know tribalism is a strong word. But when one group of a society (Canada used to think of itself as a civil society) doesn’t care what happens to other groups of that society – and uses the political process to persecute them – we are in uncharted territory. At least in my obviously romantic and outdated view of our country.
Politicians long ago figured out how to identify tribalism and turn it into votes. It’s how all political parties conduct business. The process is about identifying which issues attract which voters, determine who they are, then ensure they turn out on election day. With the internet and social media, it has never been easier or more accurate. These tools didn’t exist 10 or even 5 years ago.
I’m so old I remember the days when political parties campaigned on honest government, good public services and low taxes. Ancient history. In 1974 Pierre Trudeau’s election slogan was, “The Land Is Strong”.
While not exactly stated this way, the NDP and Green campaign slogan was, “Vote For Me And I’ll Screw Alberta”. The land is not strong.
The current Cambridge Analytica scandal is modern politics on social media steroids. Using 87 million names and profiles from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica is accused of influencing everything from England’s Brexit vote to elections in the United States and Africa.
The indignation about the Cambridge imbroglio is not about the morality of using data to sway voters but how the data was obtained. Find your tribe and give them what they want. This is a given and clearly acceptable. This scandal is about how, not what.
And the biggest tribe is the politicians. Their behavior is laser focused when seeking and retaining public office. When successful, the elected politician will then do whatever is required to please the voters who secured them the best job most have ever had in their lives. There are two elements. The first is there is nothing more important than staying in office. The second is those who campaign on one thing then do something else are criticized by the media, commentators, their supporters and their opponents.
The arrest of two federal politicians at TME Burnaby terminal – Burnaby-South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May – illustrate how far modern politicians go to retain support. Both knew that whatever consequences might arise from proudly being arrested for breaking the law, it wouldn’t cost them any votes in their tribe. It’s a badge of honor. Law? But what about the next election?
Polls indicate the majority of British Columbians support TME. But they won’t vote for Stewart or May so who cares? Roll the TV cameras.
And so it goes as the democratically elected leaders of B.C., Alberta and Canada duke it out in the media over the future of TME. Although some progress appears to have been made in Ottawa April 15, regrettably the solution involves other people’s money, that of federal and Alberta taxpayers. B.C. remains recalcitrant.
People assail B.C. Premier John Horgan for being irrational and obstructionist and bombard him with a mountain of facts about jobs, the economy and damaging foreign investment. Irrelevant. He knows where his votes are and if he doesn’t, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who holds the balance of power and thus Horgan’s tenure as premier, certainly does.
One of Horgan’s loyal supporters claims with certainty TME tankers will wipe out the killer whales. Be assured the B.C. Premier will make no effort to temper the views of any of his supporters, even when they spout absolute nonsense.
Albertans are generally pleased with Premier Rachel Notley’s recent conversion from an apologist for Alberta’s oil industry to a supporter. Because of the economic damage B.C. has intentionally inflicted on Alberta, Notley’s expanded tribe (at least for now) wants revenge. Therefore, legislation has been passed to throttle back the flow of oil and refined products through the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and drive up the price of fuel in B.C. The effective date has been synchronized with Kinder Morgan’s May 31 deadline for a clear path to construction with minimal disruption. But if B.C. comes up with any more bright ideas before then, the legislation will be put into effect immediately.
Economic warfare among two neighboring provinces based on a decade of lies about the toxicity of oil sands. Politicians and environmentalists who expound about an energy future of clean renewables that doesn’t exist. Shameless political pandering to tribes of voters to achieve power at any cost. What a mess.
The person with the toughest assignment in keeping his multitude of tribes happy is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But this is self-inflicted because in the 2015 election he promised to be everything to everybody. He proposed banning tankers on B.C.’s northern coast which he did a year later. He campaigned on rebuilding the National Energy Board because it kept making logical technical and commercial decisions to approve pipelines which might cost Liberals votes.
Once elected he raised corporate taxes, introduced carbon taxes, looked the other way when the NEB cancelled the Energy East hearings, and did not in any way censure Quebec when it cheered following the cancellation of Energy East.
Trudeau has mused publicly about how Canada will be a better place once we no longer produce oil sands. Since then he has had to “clarify” his comments by extending the timeline. Ironically, and as Trudeau has stated over and over again in recent weeks, he is also supposed to be TME’s biggest ally. And tragically, TME’s only hope.
The Liberals elected 18 of the 42 MPs in B.C. in 2015, many in the anti-pipeline lower mainland region where Trudeau’s election commitments have come back to haunt him. Quebec, where the Liberals hold 42 of 77 seats, has publicly warned the federal government not to be too heavy-handed on the rights of other provinces to object to pipelines should they be so inclined.
This has caused pundits to wonder whether the Liberals will support the economy with TME or support themselves in the provinces where they hold 95 seats, two provinces not friends of oil sands or pipelines. The recent actions promised by Ottawa are, however, encouraging.
What does this all mean? How do you win a debate when facts don’t matter and complete nonsense is routinely spouted as the truth?
How do you influence a political process and the behavior of elected leaders who are increasingly beholden to a coalition of narrow, single issue power bases that are utterly doctrinaire and no longer respond to ancient concepts of economic growth or supporting your fellow citizens?
We read over and over again how false news affects elections. Most thought this was a U.S./Trump/Clinton/Russia issue. Nope. It is right in our face.
The first step is to fully grasp the problem. The next is to understand the solution.
Politicians will gravitate to votes wherever they are. Righteous fulmination in the multitude of modern media outlets is preaching to the converted. So long as the tribal leaders are doing the talking, their supporters will remain firm.
Our industry must speak to the voters, not the politicians or each other. Maybe the upcoming Ontario election will give us a glimmer of hope that the common sense of the common people can still save the country.
Detecting the flaws in democracy 150 years before Winston Churchill, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Now we know who to talk to.
About David Yager – Yager Management Ltd.
Based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, David Yager is a former oilfield services executive and the principal of Yager Management Ltd. Yager Management provides management consultancy services to the oilfield services industry in a number of areas including M&A, Strategic Planning, Restructuring and Marketing. He has been writing about the upstream oil and gas industry and energy policy and issues since 1979.