News about massive electric exports to the United States has suddenly made life more difficult for cabinet ministers seeking to replace Premier Ed Stelmach.
At the same time, it has enhanced the electoral ambitions for two other disparate groups: Alberta opposition parties — especially the Wildrose Alliance — and Tory leadership contenders who were not recently in Stelmach’s cabinet.
The news comes from Wikileaks, detailed by Calgary Herald reporter Jason Fekete this week.
He revealed how, in 2003, the Alberta government was reassuring the United States that there would be plenty of Alberta-generated electricity available for purchase.
That information came from Murray Smith, Alberta’s energy minister at the time. Smith told the U.S. ambassador that new electricity generation capacity, needed to supply the coming oilsands construction boom, would provide more than enough power to allow electricity exports.
“Smith and others also want to make sure that the (U.S. government) is aware that over time there will be tremendous electricity cogeneration available as a result of the huge thermal needs of the oilsands refining process,” says a diplomatic cable from U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci, to his bosses in Washington.
“This could, over time, make significant new electricity exports available to the United States,” Cellucci added.
Two weeks later, Smith told Albertans that we would be on the hook for the full costs of new power lines between Calgary and Fort McMurray.
Since then, the government has told us repeatedly that two new electricity trunk lines are needed purely to support new businesses and consumers in Southern Alberta, where the population has exploded in the past generation, without matching expansion in the electricity grid.
All the while, it has insisted that new power capacity would be strictly for provincial consumption, that exports were not being contemplated.
Then it passed Bill 50, which approved $6 billion in expenditures for new power lines and related infrastructure, while severely restricting the public’s ability to have their say on the projects.
Bill 50 gave cabinet the sole authority.
All of this plays into the wheelhouse of the Wildrose Alliance.
Polls show it has overtaken the Alberta Progressive Conservative party in rural Alberta, where residents will be most affected by unwanted high-capacity power lines crossing their land.
This week’s revelations will damage Conservative fortunes across the province.
The risks are so acute that Tories are getting nervous, none more so than candidates to succeed Stelmach as premier.
Ted Morton joined a rising chorus of Albertans calling for a review of the spending for new electricity lines that he endorsed while he was minister of sustainable resource.
He said he never backed elements of Bill 50 that eliminated public hearings, by designating $6 billion of a planned $14-billion electricity upgrade as “critical infrastructure.”
But Morton never publicly registered his opposition to that plan until this week.
Alison Redford, who also left Stelmach’s cabinet to join the leadership race, said this week she is worried about the staggering costs of the electricity infrastructure.
Any other Tory leadership contenders who sat in Stelmach’s last cabinet will be in the same awkward quandary as Morton and Redford.
The happy beneficiaries of their torment will be leadership candidates like Gary Mar and Rick Orman.
Mar succeeded Smith as Alberta’s point man in Washington, before Bill 50 was passed, while Orman has been out of government for 18 years.
They have to be pleased not to wear this albatross around their necks every day of the leadership campaign.
But they can’t be happier than Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.
“The only way you can justify a $14-billion transmission system is if the U.S. is the intended market,” she said this week.
“It looks to me they were caught red-handed and yet they continue to deny it.”
Red-handed and red-faced.
Morton acknowledged that the reason his government forced Bill 50 through the legislature in 2009 was because Tory MLAs were impatient with the slow regulatory process in approving new power transmission lines.
“It started in 2004, ’05, ’06,” Morton said this week. “They were in a hurry.”
Hurried then. Humbled now, because they refused to acknowledge a deeply-seated public sentiment.
It’s curious but undeniable phenomenon in Alberta. Our economic fortunes rely overwhelmingly on resource exports to the United States.
The more that happens for products like oil, gas, lumber, and livestock, the richer we become and the happier most Albertans seem to be.
But it’s not true with electricity. Power exports are the outlier because secretive governments have given Albertans reasons to fear and doubt their true motivations.
Pretty soon, they will have to pay.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.