Calgary Herald

Banana republic claim peels back policy questions

- don brAid

“It’s official — Alberta’s a banana republic,” says Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson, while oilsands shares tumble at the prospect of forced lease cancellati­ons.

Sustainabl­e Resources Minister Mel Knight snaps: “That’s a bunch of stuff coming out the south end of a northbound bull. They (Wildrose) do great harm to the province by spewing that kind of crap around.”

Almost choking with fury, Knight tells me Wildrose is grotesquel­y distorting the Lower Athabasca land use plan with claims that developmen­t could halt in 20 per cent of the oilsands, locking in $3.4 trillion of recoverabl­e reserves.

“That is absolute nonsense,” Knight fumes. “Nonsense! That kind of rhetoric doesn’t help a bit.”

It doesn’t help the Tories, that’s for sure.

With one announceme­nt, the government itself has exhumed the property-rights bogey Wildrose used to kick them all over the countrysid­e for six months.

Wildrose has claimed all along that Bill 36, the Land Stewardshi­p Act, allows cabinet to confiscate land and extinguish rights without proper compensati­on or recourse.

Shocked by protest meetings in many communitie­s, the Tories then brought in 12 pages of amendments to “clarify” protection of property rights.

And now, out comes the explosive Athabasca plan.

Among other things — including good ones like new conservati­on areas — it calls for changing or cancelling leases already purchased by more than a dozen oilsands companies.

Markets were quick to boo, driving down share prices of several major companies, including Cenovus, Suncor and Imperial, by as much as two per cent.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, calling the PCs as great a threat to Alberta’s economy as federal Liberals, won’t take any blame for that.

“They’re the ones who cancel contracts, not us,” she says. “We believe in the rule of law and property rights. They have to wear what they’ve done. And we’ve been saying all along they’d do it.”

Most remarkably, the PCs have served Wildrose this political banquet during the leadership campaign to replace Premier Ed Stelmach.

Candidate Alison Redford repeats her demand for a halt on any action under Bill 36 until the new premier is chosen.

“I was worried this was going to happen,” she says. “The bigger issue is the lack of certainty it creates in companies going out to seek capital on the market.

“It could happen on the convention­al (oil and gas) side too, and that speaks to a problem with the legislatio­n.”

She won’t get her postponeme­nt, though. Knight says that after consultati­on and changes, cabinet could approve the Lower Athabasca plan by mid-July.

Candidate Ted Morton, Knight’s predecesso­r in sustainabl­e resources, disagrees with Redford, saying the plan should be approved.

“I’d describe the Wildrose line as naive and self-serving,” says Morton. “They’re just making things up.”

Like Knight, he argues that the Athabasca plan must be strong enough to blunt environmen­talists’ attacks on the oilsands and deny Ottawa a chance to seize jurisdicti­on.

Sources in the financial industry, meanwhile, say the government consulted widely with companies about the leases.

“This isn’t nearly as bad as what they started out with,” says one expert. “They’ve done a good job on this. The industry knew there would be some impact.” He expects minimal damage to investment.

None of that will stop Wildrose from relaunchin­g their hugely successful property-rights campaign. And with six more regional plans coming, Smith’s party will have plenty to chew on.

“We were just mending the damage done by the royalty fiasco,” Rob Anderson says, “and they take a nuke to the industry again with this plan.”

“If you’re an investor sitting in New York, you’d have to be an absolute moron to invest in this province under this government.”

When the legislatur­e reopens next week, Albertans will surely be edified a new political cage fight to join the federal election and PC leadership campaign.

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