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The former politician taking on Alberta’s oil industry

Kevin Taft’s book is on the oilsands’ ‘grip’ on government

Kevin Taft signs copies of his book Oil’s Deep State at Audreys Books.

Courtesy Kevin Taft

Kevin Taft signs copies of his book Oil’s Deep State at Audreys Books.

After spending over a decade as an Alberta MLA ­— four of those as leader of the Alberta Liberal Party — Kevin Taft stepped down in 2012 and refocused on writing books on the province. His latest work, Oil’s Deep State: How the Petroleum Industry Undermines Democracy and Stops Action on Global Warming — in Alberta,’ launches Tuesday.

Metro caught up with him about his time in government, royalty rates, and what the NDP are doing differently. Questions and answers have been condensed for brevity and clarity.

How does the petroleum industry “undermine democracy”?

The oil industry has got its grips on so many democratic institutions in Alberta, that it’s essentially running the province. It’s got its grips on political parties across the spectrum, on the Alberta energy regulator, on the legislature, on key Alberta government departments like energy, environment, and in important ways on the universities. And democracy depends on independent institutions like political parties and professional and civil services having a sort of creative tension between them. When they’re all in service to one big private industry, effectively that industry forms a state within the state. Which is the definition of a deep state.
 
Has it been the same with the new government as it was with the Progressive Conservatives?

The industry really began to put its grip on democracy in Alberta in the mid-1990s. The key turning point was the one per cent royalty regime on oilsands brought in 1997. And that grip has just intensified since then. Questions, for example, that should be coming to the legislature, around the tens of billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities for environmental cleanups aren’t even being asked. Nobody’s asking why are royalties so low. Those questions aren’t coming up because those institutions aren’t serving the public.
 
How did your time in government influence your views on the oil industry?

When I was in the legislature I saw how completely the oil industry shaped public policy in Alberta. I would see the industry lobbying government, I would see industry officials stepping into the regulatory roles. So I began to realize that there was very little separation between the oil industry and the government … I was amazed at how tight the department of environment in Alberta is with the oil industry.
 
How does this perceived ‘deep state’ affect the average Albertan?

Peter Lougheed was collecting royalties of nearly 50 per cent. The changes made in the 1990s have essentially stayed in place since that dropped to 1 per cent. Because we’re collecting so little royalty, that’s a key driver of our ongoing deficit here. The striking contrast is with Norway, which produces about the same amount of oil from a high-cost field. Norway has banked a trillion dollars … the Alberta government has about $20 billion in the Heritage Fund.
 
What do you hope to get out of publishing this book and how do you think people will react?

I expect a lot of pushback but I’d like there to be a much more lively debate in this province about democracy and about the oil industry. We need to regain, as citizens, control of our government.

Taft is hosting a lanch for Oil’s Deep State in partnership with the Parkland Institute on Sept. 26 from 7-9 p.m. at Telus Centre Room 150, 111 Street & 87 Avenue.

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