Gillian Steward

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

Jul 222013

Carbon tax floated as a way to pay for post-flood reconstruction.

by Gillian Steward

The devastating flash floods that swamped much of southern Alberta — including Calgary’s downtown core — have suddenly made the projected effects of climate change quite tangible.

Climate change is no longer just a concept or a gaggle of statistics. It means soggy, smelly houses, apartment and office towers without working elevators, and shuttered restaurants.

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Jul 032013

Calgary's mayor pulls city through a tough time.

by Gillian Steward

The disastrous Calgary flood could easily have ruined Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s political career. After all, he is a rookie who had never held political office until he was elected mayor of Calgary in 2010. And it’s not as though before that he had any experience navigating a city of over a million people through a flash flood. Who does?

But Nenshi not only held his ground during the disaster, he handled it so well — with such calm determination, competence and compassion — that he is more popular than ever.

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Jun 102013

Developer's efforts to thwart Mayor Nenshi include donations to Manning Centre.

by Gillian Steward

There is no sign of drugs in a secretly recorded video that involves Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. And it is not being shopped for $200,000 by shadowy figures.  But despite that, this video has garnered a lot of attention in Calgary because it involves money and some very powerful people: Nenshi, former Reform party leader Preston Manning and Cal Wenzel, one of the city’s most prominent and prosperous homebuilders.

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May 222013

Pipeline politics proved to be litmus test for voters.

by Gillian Steward

CALGARY — Politics in British Columbia has always been volatile and unpredictable, as last week’s election again proved. But it also was instructive in another way. It was the first major election campaign in Canada to feature both the economy and the environment as key issues.

That is surely a sign of the times. And even though Premier Christy Clark and her intense focus on the economy garnered the most seats for the Liberals, the popular vote tells another story.

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May 132013

BC campaign looks like a referendum on oil marketing strategies vital to the Alberta economy.

by Gillian Steward

CALGARY — Never has more been at stake for Alberta in a BC provincial election than now. Viewed from Calgary, the campaign looks like a referendum on the oil marketing strategies that both the Alberta and federal governments — and the energy industry — have been banking on for years. So this time it really matters for Alberta which party — the Liberals or the NDP — emerges victorious.

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May 042013

Senior health care official seeks doublecheck at Mayo clinic, bills province.

by Gillian Steward

CALGARY — Public trust in the people who run the public health-care system in Alberta was badly shattered when the behaviour of two high public officials came to light last week. So much so that it left many people wondering if the foxes are in charge of the hen house.  This little scandal cut right to the core of public health care and revealed what little regard some of the people in high administrative positions actually have for it and the people who pay for it with their hard-earned money.

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Apr 152013
Alison Redford.

US resistance to Keystone pipeline spurs interest in cap-and-trade, emissions limits for tar sands.

by Gillian Steward 

Alberta Premier Alison Redford was in Washington last week trying to convince legislators and other decision-makers that the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline should get the green light despite a well-organized and liberally funded campaign in the US to stop it.

This was Redford’s fourth trip in 18 months, a sign of just how desperate the Alberta government is to get this project approved so diluted bitumen from the oilsands can be delivered to refineries on the US gulf coast.

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Mar 032013

Expensive, exclusive clinic promotes uncomfortable and unproven medical exam.

by Gillian Steward

Could Calgary be the colonoscopy capital of Canada?

That’s certainly the impression that is emerging as a public inquiry into queue jumping in the public health-care system reveals all sorts of interesting data about a state-of-the-art colon cancer screening clinic associated with the University of Calgary’s medical school.

According to testimony at the inquiry, patients who were clients of a boutique private clinic, a privilege for which they paid $10,000 a year, were booked for screening colonoscopies almost instantaneously. Other patients usually waited two to three years for the widely promoted procedure.

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Feb 232013

Tar sands oil income falls short of projected revenue.

by Gillian Steward

Both the Alberta and federal governments are now pointing to the “oil price differential” as the culprit that has forced them to revamp budget projections and talk darkly about the need for cuts to programs, services and public employees.

But is this really true? Or is it just a complicated but convenient excuse that draws attention away from deeper problems?

A 2011 Alberta government research document recently released to the Alberta Federation of Labour after a lengthy tussle with the Freedom of Information gatekeepers suggests that it is a convenient excuse.

In today’s market, where the oil price has slipped and the differential is greater, the oilsands players who mine and refine oil are much more profitable than those who simply mine and ship it south.

“The premier is telling only half the story,” says AFL president Gil McGowan.

The oil price differential is not something people think about, even in Alberta. It’s the kind of numbers game that only experts in the field usually pay attention to.

To put it simply, the oil price differential is the gap between the price Alberta producers get for the heavy oil that comes from the oilsands and the benchmark price for West Texas Intermediate, which is a lighter oil. Right now the US has access to lots of lighter oil, so our unrefined oil is less desirable and fetches less per barrel.

According to the Alberta government, Alberta heavy oil producers are getting $30 a barrel less than the benchmark price And this is the main reason, says Premier Alison Redford, the provincial treasury has a $6 billion shortfall to deal with. Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is using the same excuse for reduced federal revenues.

So, you might ask why don’t we refine more of our oil before we ship it south or ship it anywhere for that matter? Wouldn’t that make more economic sense?

Not only would more refineries create more value for the resource in Canada, they would provide good jobs for thousands of workers.

According to the experts inside Alberta Energy who wrote the research paper that was stamped “secret” and never publicly released, it certainly does make more economic sense for a key sector of the oilsands industry, especially when there is a large price differential.

“Stand alone mining is sensitive to changing light-heavy differentials while integrated mining is much less responsive. Despite the fact that adding upgrading capacity makes less sense in today’s market (in 2011 oil was selling at $100 per barrel) our sensitivity analysis suggests an integrated upgrader serves as a hedge against volatility of light-heavy differentials,” they wrote.

In other words, in today’s market where the oil price has slipped and the differential is greater, the oilsands players who mine and refine oil are much more profitable than those who simply mine and ship it south. And profitability means more money for both the overall economy and the provincial and federal treasuries.

“We think the premier and the government should be shouting this from the rooftops,” says McGowan. “It’s the upside of the price differential and we should be taking advantage of it.”

Instead, only 57 percent of oilsands production is upgraded, and that percentage is expected to slide dramatically in the next few years.

McGowan has long been advocating for more refineries in Alberta. So did former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, the godfather of oilsands development, right up until he died last September.

Not only would more refineries create more value for the resource in Canada, they would provide good jobs for thousands of workers. And wouldn’t refined oil be less of an environmental threat in all those pipelines that are currently being thwarted because they will carry diluted bitumen from the oilsands?

“Government can’t force industry to build upgraders. But it can make the most of an opportunity through good policy, regulation, incentives, even equity partnerships,” says McGowan. “That’s what Lougheed did with the petrochemical industry and it worked.”

It’s not as though oil price volatility is a sudden turn of events. The price of oil has been volatile ever since someone first discovered it seeping from the ground and realized it might be useful for lighting lamps.

Governments could face up to the volatility and minimize the risks. Instead they seem to be betting that no one will notice the truth differential — the widening gap between reality and political propaganda.