The Slatest

Upheaval in the Oil Patch

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley reacts to election results in Edmonton May 5, 2015.
Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley reacts to election results in Edmonton May 5, 2015.

Photo by Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

It’s not just autocracies and failed states that have to worry about the political effects of falling oil prices. Yes, cheap oil has contributed to dysfunction in Venezuela and chaos in Libya, and has put added pressure on the sanctions-hit economics of Russia and Iran. But as last night’s dramatic election in Alberta showed, the friendly budding petrostate to our north isn’t immune.

The left-wing New Democratic Party won a commanding victory in Alberta’s elections with 40 percent of the vote, ending more than four decades of Conservative rule over the energy-rich province. Long a marginal third party, the union-linked NDP replaced the Liberal Party as Canada’s largest opposition party in the 2011 national parliamentary elections. The Alberta result will help bolster that status.

The result is worrisome for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is up for re-election this fall and whose Conservative party’s base has long been Alberta. The Conservatives made a host of unforced errors. The province’s premier, Alison Redford, resigned last March amid spending scandals, and her replacement, Jim Prentice, ill-advisedly called early elections, counting on the support Alberta voters had given his party for decades. In a televised debate over the budget with NDP leader Rachel Notley, Prentice was accused of sexism after telling her “math is difficult.”

Still, it’s hard to overstate the impact of falling oil prices, which sucked millions from government revenues in the province known as Canada’s oil patch. Prentice responded with a new budget that, as the National Post put it, “neither raised taxes and spending enough for the left, nor cut deeply enough for the right.” He also seemed to blame citizens by telling voters to “look in the mirror” to understand the province’s economic woes.

The Alberta election also is big news for watchers of climate change politics. Given the agonizingly slow pace of political change on the issue, the election of a party running on an environmentalist ticket in North America’s oil capital is a pretty stunning development. Notley, the province’s new premier, has promised to put an end to Alberta’s reputation as a climate pariah by instituting tougher emissions standards on the region’s oil sands and increasing taxes on energy companies. She has also pledged to stop spending government money to lobby for Keystone in Washington. The previous government had hired prominent Washington lobbyists, and Prentice had personally visited Capitol Hill to rally support for the controversial pipeline project, which is currently in limbo since congressional Republicans failed to overturn President Obama’s veto in March.

It’s tempting to wonder if Obama sealed Prentice’s fate by continually punting on the project, in which the Conservatives had invested so much political capital. Judging by recent polls, it’s possible he may have helped seal Harper’s as well.