Pipeline Drama: Great Politics and Dubious Policy

Commentary, Energy, Lee Harding

Canada’s latest political drama has come from the current state of jeopardy of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The B.C. government is asking the courts if it can block the pipeline, creating bipartisan agreement by Alberta politicians for some radical policies. The United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta and the NDP government of Alberta are co-operating to fast track legislation that gives Alberta the right to stop the flow of oil to British Columbia. More surprisingly, they both support provincial and federal involvement and tax dollars to save the project. This is as close as Canadian politics gets to reality TV, with self-interested actors allied by necessity when embroiled in conflict against a common enemy.

Unfortunately, political drama does not equal good policy. Canadians, and especially Albertans, have every reason to be wary of recent developments given the history of this drama and the potential consequences of where things could go.

Since 2000 there has been American involvement in the subverting of the Canadian Oil Sands. For instance, more than half of the David Suzuki Foundation contributions come from American sources. At the request and funding of the Tides Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Corporate Ethics International launched the Tar Sands Campaign whose campaign strategy “was to land-lock the tar sands so their crude could not reach the international market where it could fetch a high price per barrel. This meant national and grassroots organizing to block all proposed pipelines.”

Thanks must go to the extensive investigations of the “Fair Questions” website which uncovered the Tar Sands Campaign funding, resources, and coordination with groups in Canada. This campaign has had remarkable success in changing the political culture of Canada, contributing to the election of the prime minister and the premiers primarily involved in the pipeline dispute.

Sometimes that influence was focused and active, as shown by the connections between Tides Foundation and the Leadnow campaign, which claims to have helped take 25 seats from the Harper Conservatives in the 2015 election. In just one example, Leadnow had paid staff and 130 volunteers working Winnipeg’s Elmwood-Transcend riding, helping topple the Conservative incumbent  by just 61 votes.

After the Liberal Party swept to power in 2015, the newly appointed chief of staff was regarded as the  brains behind the government. As a former spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund he had been vocally opposed to the oil sands in years prior, and such deeply held convictions don’t vanish quickly. The Trudeau government stuffed the National Energy Board with Liberals but also said it would give final decisions to cabinet, not the NEB itself as the Harper Conservatives had done. Although The Prime Minister approved Enbridge’s Line 3 and approved the Trans Mountain pipeline in November 2016, Northern Gateway was rejected due to environmental sensitivities (never mind the numerous tankers going up and down the Alaskan coast already). The Prime Minister added that his approval was due to the Alberta Premier’s energy plan, thereby bolstering the politics of progressives even while approving a pipeline.

In August of 2017, the federal government announced that pipelines had to account for downstream greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in their environmental impact. Builders no longer had to count not only the GHGs produced in the pipeline’s construction and the oil production upstream, but also the combustion emissions downstream. This added onus led TransCanada to give up on its 30,000 page application for its Energy East line. The Trudeau government had thus killed a pipeline without appearing to do so. But its duplicity was revealed in February this year when information requests made by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation proved that the Canadian government does not apply the downstream emissions criteria on oil coming into Canada.

During this time an interprovincial squabble intensified between B.C. premiers resisting Alberta pipelines, and Alberta premiers talking tough in response. It is always been politically advantageous to defend one’s own people and interests against the imposition of another group, and it was no different here. It worked for Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed in his battles with Pierre Trudeau in the 1980s. It also helps Alberta’s current Premier, not to mention B.C.’s Premier NDP-Green Coalition in B.C. that lives by the slimmest majority.

Thus, it was a master stroke when B.C.’s Premier went to the court for a reference question. In April he asked the B.C. Court of Appeal to rule on whether it could use the Environmental Management Act “to regulate impacts of heavy oils, like diluted bitumen, which, when released into the environment, would endanger human health, the environment and communities.” Kinder Morgan announced in a press release “it is difficult to conceive of any scenario in which we would proceed with the project” and decided that unless that unlikely solution was found by May 31, it would not dedicate any more to the $7.4 B project than the $1.1 B it already had.

This announcement occurred just before the throne speech in Alberta and has brought on high political drama. The Notley government is fast-tracking legislation to give itself the authority to stop oil from being shipped by pipeline to B.C., all with the support of the Conservatives. The ironies and chutzpah involved in Bill 12 are remarkable. Alberta says B.C. has no right to shut off the flow of oil through pipelines, so it introduced legislation to make Alberta do the very same thing! The very point of Bill 12, entitled, “Preserving Canada’s Economic Prosperity Act” is to make British Columbia feel the economic pain. And, while protesting self-interested provincial jurisdiction in the national interest, it asserts provincial jurisdiction in the name of the whole country.

In even more unfortunate irony, Alberta politicians have united in screaming for the unthinkable. Alberta’s premier and the UCP leader both support Albertan taxpayers paying for completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The Notley government went farther to suggest buying the project. Now both leaders want to have the provincial and federal governments taking a stake in the pipeline. Is this the Twilight Zone! Not long ago, another Prime Minister made an investment in the energy industry by creating the National Energy Program and putting the headquarters of Petro Canada in Calgary. Alberta’s oil barons called the building “Red Square,” after the Communist regime in Moscow. In those days Albertans and their politicians railed against a Trudeau Liberal government whose policies devastated the energy industry. But now, when Trudeau Liberals have done the same thing, Alberta’s politicians unite to call on them to do even more!

No matter how many Alberta politicians and energy leaders offer their support, Canadians should be wary of federal investment in this project or even the promise to “indemnify” investors made by Federal Finance Minister. The last federal precedent was the auto bailout, which lost the Ontario and federal governments a combined $3.7 B. As for Alberta’s premier, the last time she stood beside energy leaders was when she rolled out her Climate Leadership Plan. The Notley government’s plan called for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands that essentially allowed those businessmen’s projects to fully come on line but would prevent any future developments there. Thus, a key goal of the Tar Sands Campaign was fulfilled, all while Alberta oil tycoons applauded. Let’s hope people stop cheering and start thinking.