PHOTOS: Yoga enthusiasts on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, probably focusing the energy of the cosmos to make Alberta’s bitumen go away. Below: The Alberta Legislature in Edmonton at about the same time of year. There’s nobody on the lawn because it’s too darned cold. Below the lovely architecture, a steely-eyed Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and a smiling B.C. Premier John Horgan.

Those of us who are Albertans understand intuitively why Premier Rachel Notley and others in the Alberta NDP Government may have been privately less than enthralled by the prospect of British Columbia’s New Democrats forming a government in the province to our west.

Premier Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan, after all, once worked together in B.C. and both understand the politics of that province perfectly well.

So Alberta’s premier knew on the day last June when former B.C. premier Christy Clark’s very conservative “Liberal” government fell on a vote of confidence that Mr. Horgan’s NDP, with its need to keep in mind the wishes of Coastal B.C.’s huge small-g green constituency, might very well be much harder to work with on the pipeline file, which is a matter of political survival here.

When Mr. Horgan’s B.C. NDP worked out a deal to govern based on the votes of four Capital-G Green Party MLAs, Ms. Notley had no choice but to smile and utter words of congratulation to her friend and former colleague.

But nothing about what has happened since – including Tuesday’s announcement by B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman of B.C.’s plans to regulate the flow of bitumen from Alberta – can have surprised Premier Notley.

Judging from the reaction since Tuesday, however, it may be harder for those Albertans who are inclined to support Premier Notley’s government to understand that the same phenomenon may work in reverse on the other side of the Rockies, if not for exactly the same reasons.

A couple of Alberta commenters on this blog, for example, have warned that if the B.C. NDP won’t work with Ms. Notley’s Alberta NDP, they will find Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party much harder to deal with. This is true only in one sense. In other ways, the opposite is so.

Notwithstanding the two NDP governments’ fraternal feelings and roughly similar social goals, Mr. Horgan’s government may have concluded it is much easier for his party to live long and prosper in Victoria with a Conservative like Mr. Kenney leading the government in Edmonton.

Ms. Notley, after all, has tried hard to achieve what used to be called “social licence” for Alberta’s need for some kind of infrastructure to export its diluted bitumen – on which, despite the many environmental risks it poses along the way, Alberta’s economy will for the foreseeable future depend. We can argue about decisions past Alberta governments should have made to diversify the province’s economy, but the harsh fact remains that in 2018 we go to market with the economy we have.

As such, and combined with her ability to be an effective spokesperson in British Columbia for Alberta’s economy and its principal industry, Ms. Notley’s potential for success represents a greater threat to Mr. Horgan, facing Liberal opponents on the right and Green opponents on the side of environmental purity if not exactly the left, than Mr. Kenney likely would.

Yes, Mr. Kenney would bluster and shout, and try to shove whatever the fossil fuel industry wants up the noses of Coastal British Columbians. But despite the weakness of its constitutional tools, as accurately observed by Ms. Notley, any B.C. Government has lots of effective political tools to apply in response to Alberta’s demands for a pipeline unpopular with Coastal B.C. voters. And many of those tools would work better against a clear environmental villain like the blustering, bullying, climate-change-denying UCP.

Were Alberta not now governed by New Democrats, Mr. Horgan could respond to Conservative bloviations as Alberta Conservatives have traditionally responded to positions taken by politicians in Quebec. Who in Alberta can forget the fake outrage ginned up by former Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean every time former Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre opened his mouth to say something uncomplimentary about TransCanada Corp.s now-abandoned Energy East Pipeline?

Say what you will about Alberta’s Wildrosers and Progressive Conservatives, though, they weren’t all dummies. They knew perfectly well that this belligerent nonsense was just for home consumption. Indeed, it probably helped the Quebec politicians in the Albertans’ crosshairs.

Right now, both NDP premiers are also playing to their home audiences. Insiders have to know that while it is probably politically essential, Premier Notley’s Jason-Kenney-like insistence that B.C.’s action constitutes “an attack on Confederation” is hyperbolic nonsense.

As noted, B.C.’s Constitutional case is a weak one, but it is not totally without merit on its arguments about what level of government is responsible for environmental regulation – a topic that didn’t really figure into the division of powers by the Fathers of Confederation in 1867.

But even if a provincial government is completely wrong about the constitution this hardly constitutes a threat to Confederation, because the ultimate decision will be made by the courts. This, in fact, is one of the reasons we have a Supreme Court of Canada. As an experienced and talented lawyer, Ms. Notley certainly understands this, despite her current political need for hyperbole.

Moreover, as a reader from the West Coast points out, none of Mr. Heyman’s arguments deal with the unquestionable Constitutional rights of B.C. First Nations, who live on on un-ceded land. Neither Alberta nor Ottawa can argue they have no right to assert their arguments against pipelines in the courts if they wish.

Beyond bluster, there’s not really very much any Alberta government on the left or the right can do about British Columbian intransigence on the pipeline file.

Ottawa would have to assert the Peace, Order and Good Government provisions of the Constitution if Alberta tried some of the nonsense suggested by pipeline enthusiasts on the political right in this province, among them Mr. Kenney himself. In fairness, I’m sure the UCP brain trust is not that dumb, whatever they may say to fire up the home team.

However, it is obvious that there’s nothing B.C.’s most radical Greens would like better than a real fight over a pipeline, because they know that in the long term they could win it, especially if the energy industry is as fragile as it increasingly seems in a world edging toward a post-carbon future.

The reality is that Ms. Notley’s approach is still more likely to work than Mr. Kenney’s, but it will take time she may not have because impatience with the rest of Canada is always such a powerful motivator to Alberta voters.

So it is quite likely from the B.C. NDP’s perspective, and certainly from the point of view of the hardest-edged West Coast greens, that there are significant advantages to having a government in Alberta led by climate ignoramuses, climate change deniers and obvious bullies like Mr. Kenney.

To them they can say “¡No pasarán!and see their support at home strengthen and their chances of success increase.

NOTE: The Energy East Pipeline was a project of TransCanada Corp. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this post.

Join the Conversation


  1. So the AB NDP are fighting for the underdog: Kinder Morgan and Big Oil. How touching.
    In AB, pipeline cheerleaders masquerading as journalists stoke the fires of Albertans’ resentment, already approaching hysteria in some quarters.

    Responsibility for this debacle lies squarely with Premier Notley, who made no attempt to win over local communities, ignored BC’s concerns, and decided to ram her pet pipeline through over their heads. Her “social license” smokescreen has been a predictable failure.
    Enabled, regrettably, by AB progressives who remain silent, thus giving Notley carte blanche.
    Petro-politics by brute force. Not a pretty sight.

    1. Govts and politicians cannot award themselves social licence. Social licence comes from affected citizens and communities.
      How could a tiny carbon tax, an oilsands cap far above current levels, and a climate change plan that boosts emissions buy social licence for pipelines in another province?

      Notley has used her “climate plan” to leverage approval for export pipelines, oilsands expansion, and rising emissions. A “climate plan” that will prevent Canada from remotely approaching its emissions targets.
      How does failure to reduce emissions in one province buy social licence for pipelines in another province?

      1. AB progressives should not settle for an NDP premier who pushes pipelines. Albertans concerned about climate change and fossil fuel pollution should challenge Notley’s reckless oilsands expansion agenda. Green voters should vote for the sustainable future they believe in.

        Which is worse: a politician who pays lip service to science or an outright denier?
        On climate change, Notley poses a greater threat to our grandchildren’s future than Kenney and the sadsack UCP could ever hope to be. Kenney could never get pipelines built. Many Canadians are falling for Notley’s spin on pipelines and climate change.

        Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes (CBC Radio, Sep 14, 2017): “It’s such an idiotic argument, it’s really hard to give a rational answer to it. If you are building pipelines, you’re committing yourself to another 30, 50, 75, 100 years of fossil fuel infrastructure. If we’re really serious about decarbonizing our economy, it means we have to stop building fossil fuel infrastructure.”

        1. Geoffrey, your bluster always amuses me. When President Obama was first elected in 2008 the U.S. was producing 5 million bpd of crude oil, by the time he left office this had increased to over 9 million bpd and now in the last year 10 million bpd. The reason I bring this up is Alberta if memory serves me produces just over 4 million bpd. So the U.S. has increased it production in the last 9 years by more than Alberta produces yet you believe that if Alberta stops building oil infrastructure we will save the world. Under Obama there was also 19200 kms of pipelines built in the U.S. The decarbonization of our economy will occur when the alternatives make cents! You also said progressives should not settle for a NDP Premier that pushes for pipelines, what do you think her chances of re-election would be then?

          1. Well said sir. Also what a lot of people don’t know is that the Americans are developing there own oil sands in Utah. But of course that bitumen is clean bitumen, not like our filthy Alberta bitumen.

          2. Farmer Brian wrote: “Yet you believe that if Alberta stops building oil infrastructure we will save the world.”
            Straw man. Nowhere did I make or imply such a claim.
            Collective problem require collective solutions. We in AB and Canada need to do our part, just like every other jurisdiction in the world.

            Farmer Brian wrote: “The decarbonization of our economy will occur when the alternatives make cents!”
            Use full-cost accounting. Make producers and consumers pay the true, full costs of goods and services. No more externalizing environmental and health costs. Price energy properly — and let the markets decide.
            Tally the true costs of fossil fuel pollution and devastation, including climate change. Once those costs are priced in, fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive — and less harmful alternatives look like a bargain.

            Premier Notley was elected on a platform that included climate leadership. Not pipelines.

  2. Having lived in both Burnaby and Edmonton, this analysis is spot on. Just one minor correct, Energy East was a proposal by TransCanada. Enbridge also had another failed pipeline with Northern Gateway. With all of the failed pipeline projects and companies involved, it’s easy to get them mixed up!

  3. “especially if the energy industry is as fragile as it increasingly seems in a world edging toward a post-carbon future.”

    Humans need to leave fossil fuels (esp. the dirtiest ones like bitumen) in the ground until we’re smart enough to harvest and use them w/o creating widespread pollution of any kind.

    For the foreseeable future the tar sands are essentially stranded assets. Alberta and Canada need to pack up and move on.

  4. Yes I get that the Alberta NDP would probably prefer to deal with the BC Liberals and the BC NDP would probably prefer the UCP in Alberta this situation. Coming to an agreement will be difficult in this case where both provinces have different interests that do not seem to be easily reconcilable, so better to fight with an adversary than a friend. Family disputes are often the most uncomfortable, sometimes quite messy and can be politically damaging.

    I suppose I would prefer green grass in Edmonton and yoga at the Legislature in January too, but that is not going to happen either. Success in politics is more about making the best of the hand of cards you have been dealt rather that hoping another troublesome government would some how magically go away. Alberta has a majority government, so it is certainly not going away soon. Mr. Horgan’s position is much more precarious, but he will certainly hang on at least until after the BC Liberals pick a new leader. How quickly another BC election happens after that depends on how confident he or the other parties are about doing better than in the last one.

    Political pundits often believe that a good knock down fight with an adversary boosts a party’s position. It can, but often the boost is just temporary. A great example is right in the post above – the battle between Brian Jean and Montreal Mayor Coderre. Less than a year after their heated back and forth rhetoric, where are they now? Neither lead anything anymore. Partisans might love conflict, but regular voters want their governments to work together. Sometimes conflict is inevitable, but regular voters can easily tire of excessive chest thumping, especially if they think it is making the problem worse.

    I think most Canadians get this pipeline could be beneficial for the national interest, by lessening our dependence on the US, which unfortunately has become an unreliable ally. However, they would prefer Alberta and BC work things out, rather than have the Feds impose a solution on them. The Federal Liberals have often been accused of being heavy handed in dealing with the Provinces. Prime Minister Trudeau seems to be showing restraint at this point, which is probably both wise and politically the best strategy for him. However, the country does not have infinite patience and I don’t think it really wants 3 BC Green MLA’s subverting national goals. Alberta for years has been painted as the bad guy, but I think the national image may be changing and this time BC may have overplayed its hand. It’s still most likely Prime Minister will leave it to the courts to slap down BC, but it is possible if BC continues to frustrate his agenda, as well as Alberta’s action will be taken. The Federal government has many constitutional powers and would be within its legal rights to use them. While there would be a political cost to that in BC, lets remember not everyone in BC supports the BC Green’s position on this issue. There was previously a party in power in BC that was more amenable to Alberta’s position and while it is no longer in power, it and its supporters have not gone away, but are just waiting to resolve their leadership and for the BC NDP to slip up. Mr. Horgan may have to appease the Greens in the short term to stay in power, but in the long term he will have to convince BC voters he can look after their economic interests as well as the environment.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.