Why demanding Ottawa intervene to bend B.C. to Alberta’s will is probably a terrible idea … from Alberta’s point of view

Posted on April 10, 2018, 1:15 am
10 mins

PHOTOS: Perfidious Pierre, villain of the National Energy Program, as the late prime minister is understood by all good Albertans to have been (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). Below: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney, and British Columbia Premier John Horgan (Photo: B.C. NDP).

All Albertans are fed scary stories about perfidious Liberals led by the tyrant Pierre Trudeau and the nefarious provincial-rights-stealing National Energy Program with their mothers’ milk. We all understand that This Must Never Happen Again.

The ideas the NEP wrecked the provincial economy in the 1980s and that the elder Mr. Trudeau did it on purpose are mostly baloney, to stick with nutrition metaphors, but at this point it’s pretty hard to persuade any dyed-in-the-wool Albertan that’s so. Never mind the worldwide recession of 1981 and ’82. They’ve stopped listening long before you get to that.

Albertans of all political stripes accept fairy tales about the NEP as unvarnished truth because generations of Conservative politicians have worked hard to entrench this narrative about the evils of Ottawa’s interference in Western Canadian provincial rights deep in the public psyche.

So why, all of a sudden, is there an entire elite consensus in this province that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must – simply must – intervene in the Trans Mountain Pipeline dispute to make British Columbia surrender its constitutional jurisdiction over the environment?

At the opening of an emergency Cabinet meeting in Edmonton yesterday, Premier Rachel Notley said the stakes are too high for Ottawa not to step in and, in the words of the CBC’s report, “allow its authority to be challenged.”

The meeting was called in response to Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd.’s manipulative weekend press release that threatened to pull the plug on its Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project if British Columbia’s NDP government continues to oppose it. Reporters were invited.

Conservative Opposition leader Jason Kenney has repeatedly and forcefully said much the same things as Premier Notley about this.

The thing is, though, it’s very hard to make a credible case that Ottawa’s authority has actually been challenged.

The federal government has approved the project, which comes under its clear jurisdiction because the pipeline in question crosses a provincial border. Until the company threatened to walk away from the project on Sunday, it appeared to be moving ahead.

It is true the B.C. government of Premier John Horgan has talked of imposing environmental restrictions on what is shipped through that province in pipelines and other modes of transportation. But B.C. clearly has the right to try to impose such regulations because provinces and the federal government share jurisdiction over the environment.

Whether B.C.’s legislation is constitutional or not will depend on what it says. Generally speaking, the more it is directed specifically at the Trans Mountain Pipeline, the less likely it is to succeed in the courts. If B.C. and Ottawa pass contradictory laws, the federal legislation will trump the provincial law.

But we don’t yet know what B.C.’s bill going to say. Mr. Horgan himself and the B.C. Government’s lawyers may not even know. What we do know is that the constitution gives them the right to give it a go.

In response, the Alberta Government and some federal politicians complain that B.C.’s talk creates uncertainty for the TMX project, and so it does. If it wasn’t just a crass attempt to shake down a politically vulnerable government, Kinder Morgan’s announcement may have been a reaction to that uncertainty.

But guess what? If free speech or provincial regulations alike create uncertainty, they’re still protected by our constitution. Indeed, you could argue such opinions are all just part of that big wonderful market right-wing politicians like Mr. Kenney are always praising.

So what both the Alberta NDP Government and the United Conservative Party Opposition are demanding, it would seem, is that Ottawa step in and immediately trample British Columbia’s constitutional powers with the goal of giving Kinder Morgan the assurance it says it needs to get the pipeline finished.

Most people in Alberta and a lot in Ottawa seem to think this project is in the national interest, and it may be. Alas for them, the B.C. Government and huge numbers of B.C. citizens do not agree.

Notwithstanding Albertan politicians’ desire to see the project completed quickly, isn’t it a mistake for them to demand Ottawa undermine recent constitutional jurisprudence that provinces have strong powers within their jurisdictions? Isn’t that exactly what Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney are doing when they insist Ottawa can and should aggressively step in to overrule other provinces’ powers when their positions don’t suit Alberta?

Surely this is a bad idea from Alberta’s perspective. After all, if the federal government can establish the precedent it has the authority to step in easily and thwart things B.C. has the power to do, next time it may use that authority to thwart things Alberta (or Saskatchewan, or whomever) wants. You know, like strongly regulating the amount of bitumen that can be extracted from the Athabasca Oil Sands.

This certainly goes against a long tradition in Alberta that goes back to Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative Government during the NEP years, and indeed back to the Social Credit regime of William Aberhart and Ernest Manning, of strongly asserting Alberta’s rights.

Perhaps both the NDP and the UCP imagine the division of powers in the Constitution shouldn’t apply to other provinces, only to Alberta.

More likely, they feel they have no choice but to fight to keep the oil industry sweet. It’s pretty hard to argue this isn’t an example of the industry’s continued domination of the Alberta government.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kenney has also agreed with Ms. Notley’s idea public money in the form of an ownership stake in Kinder Morgan should be spent to ensure the KMX project is completed. “I believe the Government of Alberta must be prepared, along with the federal government, to step up and provide financial certainty to the investors of Kinder Morgan,” he stated Sunday. This is quite a dramatic flip-flop for an old anti-tax propagandist from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation!

It appears non-partisan support is already in place in the Legislature for Alberta taxpayers to underwrite Kinder Morgan’s risk, while its Texas-based parent corporation can pocket the profits. This is what CTF operatives like Mr. Kenney in weak moments term “corporate welfare.”

Premier Notley said at yesterday’s cabinet meeting the NDP will introduce an emergency declaration demanding more aggressive federal action. That will apply pressure on Mr. Trudeau, who clearly would prefer to avoid having to do anything likely to harm his Liberals’ withering electoral chances in Coastal B.C.

There is also widespread support in Alberta for trade measures Premier Notley indicates Alberta will take against British Columbia – which are almost certainly unconstitutional. Some of those may require co-operation from Kinder Morgan to restrict certain substances in the existing pipeline that might expose the company to legal liability from the companies it ships to, or even the B.C. Government. It will be interesting to see how Kinder Morgan reacts to that.

It the meantime, it appears to have occurred to no one except my colleague, the blogger Dave Cournoyer, that someone needs to offer Mr. Horgan a way to compromise without losing face. Say, like putting up serious federal money to protect B.C.’s navigable inland waters from the increased tanker traffic that will move through them if the expansion project is completed.

That would be sound policy, in the national interest too, although it will require cooler heads to recognize that. Right now, it’s hard to be optimistic.

18 Comments to: Why demanding Ottawa intervene to bend B.C. to Alberta’s will is probably a terrible idea … from Alberta’s point of view

  1. Bill Malcolm

    April 10th, 2018

    A first class post. Its clarity is outstanding.

    Beginning today, with the “emergency” cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Kinder Morgan in Ottawa, one may reliably surmise in advance that all the points made here will be suitably muddied by the application of tiny minds to the situation. The neoliberal gospel will be at the forefront of any utterances on the matter if Morneau has any say from the perspective of his special advisory panel, whose existence most have entirely forgotten. It is a collection of upper crust academics and corporate CEOs willing to “work” for a loonie per person per annum and all the parliamentary cafeteria sandwiches they can endure while meeting in Ottawa. Its existence from February 2016 is easily found on the internet, and is notable for its lack of input from mere commoners.

    The cynical might observe that the “emergency” meeting is timed to coincide with a minor break in the worldwide Trudeau selfie+tapdance show. Or perhaps KM’s pronouncement yesterday was choreographed to meet his schedule. These days it’s hard to tell which foot is leading, so-called “elected” politicians with falsely-sold agendas, or the oligarchal corporate forces behind them.

    One can be fairly sure that the actual constitutionality of any pronouncements will be the last thing on the Federal government’s mind. They have legions of lawyers to fuzz any decision to “fit” the law.

    It is highly unfortunate that Notley has managed to back herself into a philosophical corner on this one, and that she must be hoping desperately for Trudeau and his merry band of cabinet nitwitz to back her up. Of course, the Cons would have had the Mounties cracking heads in Burnaby protests, attesting to their 19th century social values, so their approbation in backing KM or any other corporate entity is a given.

    The federal NDP is completely disorganized off picking daisies and thus rendered terminally useless in the matter.

    Meanwhile, here on the East Coast, under the cover of the KM uproar, the Feds have given final approval to those ethical chaps at BP to drill exploratory wells off the Nova Scotia coast, where if anything should go wrong, the nearest well-capping ship exists in Norway. Oh, the superb protection we Maritimers enjoy from these reckless chaps in Ottawa, whose only mantra appears to be approval of any old corporate shuck and jive scheme those capital forces can dream up to benefit themselves, and to devolve responsibility to the public should mishaps occur.

    Excuse me while I barf. Not for us in Canada bold proclamations of democracy. No indeed. Peace, order and good government is all that is on offer from our colonial forebears’ deliberations, and it is by no means obvious to the plodding plebs on the street who decides exactly what good government constitutes, other than that it is never something they have been asked to adjudicate by election or otherwise.

  2. Bloozguy

    April 10th, 2018

    ‘someone needs to offer Mr. Horgan a way to compromise without losing face. Say, like putting up serious federal money to protect B.C.’s navigable inland waters from the increased tanker traffic that will move through them if the expansion project is completed.’

    Throw however much money at it. How do you ‘protect B.C.’s navigable inland waters’? They talk about a world class spill response. Show me where in the world this world class response has ever made a difference. Empty rhetoric.

    And I still want to know. WHERE IS THE SCIENCE?

    • Sam Gunsch

      April 10th, 2018

      Yes, ‘world class’ oil spill recovery/clean-up is an illusion the industry and pro-industry gov’ts propagate.

      Reality: EXCERPT: ‘Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10 to 15 percent of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. “Even informed people are taken aback by these numbers,” says Short.

      Nor are the numbers any better for small marine spills…’


    • Chris

      April 10th, 2018

      I wonder how the BC NDP has lived with the one hundred or so tanker trips that annually travel through BC’s navigable inland waters from Alaska to the Anacortes, Washington on Puget Sound, and HAVE DONE SO EVERY YEAR FOR SEVERAL DECADES. Lots of hypocricy to be found around here on all sides.

      • mr perfect

        April 11th, 2018

        I must have missed the transportation of dilbit through our coastal waters, has it happened already Chris? Washington State isn’t too excited about dilbit and more oil tankers close to their proximity. Also, the Exxon Valdez and Prince William Sound is a little too close to home for me.

  3. Geoffrey Pounder

    April 10th, 2018

    “Say, like putting up serious federal money to protect B.C.’s navigable inland waters from the increased tanker traffic that will move through them if the expansion project is completed.”

    Ottawa announced such a program in 2016.
    $1.5 billion for the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

    “Justin Trudeau announces $1.5B ocean protection plan”

    Even “world-class” oil spill response on sea is dismal.
    “A review of past spills shows that rarely is more than 10% of spilled oil recovered from the sea surface.”

    Various “challenges commonly combine to limit the proportion of spilled oil that can be recovered to 10-15%.”

    This program does not address the increased stress, noise, and risk of collisions that may harm marine life, including endangered orcas.

  4. Ron

    April 10th, 2018

    Thanks, you addressed my comment from yesterday, very well.
    (“Funny – the same folks who fumed about the NEP are now calling for FEDERAL power to quash provincial rights.”) Rule of law seems to mean crushing community and indigenous (and even Provincial) rights according to the flailing KM brigade.

    This May 31 deadline is BS. All these things will play out for (expensive) years in the courts. And KM has realized that we don’t need an outright win … long legal delays will win it by default.

    “someone needs to offer Mr. Horgan a way to compromise without losing face”
    Well, we are hoping his commitment goes a little deeper than that … or the NDP-in-power will prove just as useless as the other two parties they are usually hanging from the sidelines.

    Despite the dreadful decisions to continue two of Christy Clarke’s criminal enterprises (Site C & LNG), the BC-Greens will likely keep their powder dry until we have had our PR referendum. (All the usual suspects are lining up to tell us why we must keep FPTP, LOL.) The court delays should give us time to do that. Hopefully on May 31 2018, KM will take their money (what they raised on this dubious IPO for their trans-mountain fantasy) and go harass people somewhere else in world.

  5. Geoffrey Pounder

    April 10th, 2018

    One thing’s for sure. The AB Govt is already reluctant to reduce emissions. Ottawa is already unable to meet emissions targets. Govt investment in pipelines makes the prospect for action even less likely.
    Premier Notley is erasing the lines between govt and industry.
    Not a good sign for democracy.

    • Mike in Edmonton

      April 11th, 2018

      Surer than you know. Alberta (still “Oilberduh,” with emphasis on “DUH”) and Ottawa were long ago captured by the oil industry. If you haven’t read “Oil’s Deep State” by Kevin Taft, please do. Soon.

      I voted against Jim Prentice and his PCs in 2015. I thought Notley & Co. would at least try to stand up to the oil patch. I was wrong. Next year, I’m voting Green.

  6. Ron

    April 10th, 2018

    Please delete this and edit my last post if possible: s/b “haranguing from the sidelines”

  7. Sub-Boreal

    April 10th, 2018

    Stepping back from the specifics of the Kinder Morgan controversy, how different might the course of Canadian history have been if natural resources had been primarily in federal jurisdiction. Decades of weak provinces racing each other to the bottom to lower royalty rates and loosen environmental regulation might have been avoided. Canada could have been a bigger version of Norway.

  8. Sam Gunsch

    April 10th, 2018

    A lawyer who’s specialized in researching the effectiveness of First Nations legal and advocacy strategies doesn’t like KM’s chances. Also, I would think, doesn’t portend well for gov’t investment.

    From today’s Vancouver Star: EXCERPT: ‘


    excerpt: “They’re so deep into it they have to devise a strategy that allows them to minimize their exposure and cut their losses,” Gallagher, author of the book Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, told StarMetro Vancouver.


    excerpt: ‘“Kinder Morgan is up against a disciplined, strategic mindset I don’t think they properly appreciate,” Gallagher said. “They’re in over their heads in Houston.”’


    His book:

    Resource Rulers: Fortune & Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources

    • Mike in Edmonton

      April 11th, 2018

      Let’s hope he’s right. Ironic that First Nations (treated as 3rd-class citizens or useless drones, from the mid 19th-century onward) should now be positioned to save us white guys from ourselves….

  9. tom in ontario

    April 10th, 2018

    Opinion piece headlines in my Postmedia morning paper. Help! Help!

    Oilpatch in ‘crisis mode’ as investment suspended
    Geoffrey Morgan

    Pipeling defeat could be the end for Trudeau
    John Ivison

    Why Horgan is Wrong About Trans Mountain
    Claudia Cattaneo

  10. political ranger

    April 10th, 2018

    uh huh
    I suspect that Premier Horgan is not alone in his understanding that this issue is an existential one. For his career in BC politics, for sure, but also for what remains of the BC marine and riparian environments.
    It is a remarkable thing to me that all these city-dwellers and flat-landers simply ignore what has been for millennia of human experience the living, breathing existence of the wild wilderness. Most people are scared witless to even think about a night or day in the bush; they know it’s alive, it exists without a care of human concerns.
    You talk as if there is a price one can pay to capture and preserve this essence. One cannot.
    When it’s gone … it is gone for good. Like honesty after a lie. Like virginity. Like a young life.

    We live in shameful times.

  11. Albertan

    April 11th, 2018

    Maybe I’m naive but I was surprised at this. Apparently, Kinder Morgan signed up a Russian steel company, Evraz, to supply 250,000 tonnes of steel for the Trans Mountain line. How about Canadian steel?
    Further, one of the Russian billionaires who owns Evraz is said to be “tight with Putin” and “a family friend of the Trumps.” This fellow is also said to be on a possible “American sanction list.”
    It could make one wonder where the Alberta/Canada politics of all stripes fits in with this. Business as usual?
    This info can be read at:
    “One small problem with Jason Kenny’s ‘Russian bots’ theory. Guess who’s lining the pockets of Russian oligarchs? Kinder Morgan.”

  12. brett

    April 11th, 2018

    What I find really strange about this issue is that I have yet to see even ONE news clip of Andrew Scheer raising hell, putting the LIberals feet to the fire, and voicing his support. The silence is deafening. Not just from hm, but from his colleagues.

    I live in Calgary. Michelle Remple is always trying to make the news. Yet I have not seen one word out of her. Same for the likes of Ron Leipert.

    So ask myself why. The only conclusion that I can arrive at is that they are sitting in the weeds for purely political reasons. They know that there will be quite a few BC seats in play in the next election and they do not want to say anything or take any position in case it turns off moderate voters who might otherwise vote Conservative and push them into voting orange.

    Come you Tories, Show some gumption. Put heat under the Liberals feet, raise hell in the House and on the airwaves.

    Enough of the silent treatment!


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