As the oil-producing province recasts a vision for the future where transportation is electrified, Nathan Lemphers highlights the need for new, widely understood regional narratives across the country that coalitions can use to advocate for stronger electric vehicle policy
Last June, the CEO of Canada’s largest fossil fuel company, Suncor’s Mark Little, turned many heads in Alberta. He publicly confided that oil demand may be disrupted by a transformation of our energy system and that there may be an opportunity for the oilsands to provide the carbon fibre needed for electric vehicles.
While talk about disruptions to the energy system may be self-evident in other regions in Canada, it is a novel and rather unsettling proposition for many public and private sector leaders in Alberta. For evidence, we need look no farther than Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s reaction to U.S. President Biden revoking the crucial permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Looking for a new story
The fairy tale of infinite growth in oil extraction has come crashing down and many Albertans are looking for a new story to anchor their visions of the future. More than two thirds (68 per cent) of Albertans support a goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to recent polling by Calgary-based Janet Brown Opinion Research commissioned by the Pembina Institute. In the same poll, 63 per cent of Albertans rated as “ineffective” the efforts of the provincial government to improve the reputation of Alberta’s oil and gas industry outside the province.
What will it take to make EVs, as Little has mused, part of Alberta’s story for tomorrow? The same thing that’s needed to build momentum for electric vehicles anywhere in Canada: new storytellers grounded in regional contexts.
For proof, one need only look to Quebec. The quest to be maîtres chez nous (masters in our own house) and use Quebec’s abundant emission-free hydroelectricity to spur economic development for Quebeckers has been consistently invoked when promoting electric vehicles. It’s a story that taps into a specific regional narrative that is widely understood, and so taken for granted, that it can be used to build powerful and durable coalitions, which then advocate for stronger electric vehicle policy.
Authority and legitimacy
In addition to stories, the people telling them also matter.
To shape the views of policymakers and the public, storytellers need to have authority and legitimacy. Occupation, lived experience, and bloodline can help amplify (or diminish) influence. Of course, deep pockets can also pay marketing firms and communication professionals to craft compelling stories and locate the perfect messenger. That is partly what makes the story of Greta Thunberg — a Swedish teenage girl skipping school to raise awareness about the climate emergency — so remarkable and abnormal.
When you have a compelling story told by an influential person, a new plotline can emerge and start to shape public policy and potentially rewrite the future. This is not just wishful thinking — witness the Greta Effect, which shows that the more familiar people are with Thunberg, the higher their intentions to take action on climate change.
At odds with electrification
More often than not, influential storytellers in Canada’s petroleum heartland have used their social capital to promote stories about expanding oil production — a vision at odds with electrifying transportation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alberta has some of the weakest provincial policy support for EV adoption in the country.
But that 20th-century narrative of constantly growing oil demand is less compelling than it once was. Bans on the sale of new passenger internal combustion engine vehicles are proliferating. In 2020, California and Quebec announced bans on the sale of new fossil-fuelled passenger vehicles by 2035, adding to the announced prohibitions in the UK, France, Sweden, and China (by 2030, 2040, 2030, and 2035 respectively). These strong policy signals, which are likely to spread to more jurisdictions, will have radical impacts on the demand for gasoline and diesel. In Canada and the United States roughly 75 per cent of crude oil is refined into gasoline and diesel. That makes oil-producing regions acutely vulnerable to changes in the demand for vehicle fuels.
And so, Alberta is on its back foot, hastily recasting a vision for the future where transportation is electrified. It is short on stories and storytellers.
Traditional values, new narratives
But that does not mean all hope is lost for Alberta or other oil-producing provinces with poor EV policies, like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. New stories can be cut from old cloth. Values of independence and resilience may transfer well to narratives promoting EV adoption and economic diversification.
However, for these new stories to have impact, they need to be promoted by those with influence, beyond the usual suspects of EV-user associations and environmental groups. Imagine, for example, if Mark Little were to be joined by other prominent oil and gas CEOs in showing how their companies can contribute to electrifying transportation, if hockey players promoted their electric muscle cars on social media, or if Tim Horton’s began installing EV chargers in their thousands of parking lots across the country.
To be powerful, these stories must draw in other swaths of society to build broader coalitions that are better able to shape policy outcomes and help these regions to prepare for the impending change caused by EVs.
Nathan Lemphers is a post-doctoral fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute. In his latest working paper, he studied how different regions and industries in Canada are preparing for the transition to electrified transportation, and how three regionally prominent industry associations depicted electromobility over time.