Thanks to climate politics, Canada approaches a
constitutional crisis. The government of British
Columbia is not resisting federally approved expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline mainly because it fears spills of oil on land or sea. It’s doing
so because it needs support from climate activists
hoping to crimp bitumen production in Alberta.
As usual with opposition to pipelines, worry
about spills is secondary. It’s a way to foment local
resistance that works until facts put the manageable risks of pipelines into perspective. What activists really want when they protest pipeline construction is to create bottlenecks, thus to depress
oil and gas values and discourage development.
This motivation is fundamental to a provincial
showdown in Canada, where the strategy is succeeding.
The coalition BC government led by New Democrat
John Horgan on Jan. 30 proposed to limit transit
of diluted bitumen while it redundantly studies the
environmental effects of spills. The move would
stymie Kinder Morgan’s 590,000-b/d expansion
of the Trans Mountain system between Edmonton
and the British Columbia coast at Burnaby, near
Vancouver. It thus would aggravate pipeline congestion in Alberta, where the discount of Western
Canadian Select blend to West Texas Intermediate
crude recently grew to its greatest value in 4 years,
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, also a New
Democrat, reacted to the BC initiative with understandable anger. She initially insisted Horgan
had exceeded his authority, noting the federal
government has jurisdiction over interprovincial
transportation and approved the Trans Mountain
expansion. Then she suspended talks on electricity purchases and, on Feb. 6, ordered Alberta’s
alcohol regulator to block $70 million worth of
imports of BC wine.
Horgan probably won’t yield. His government
can’t survive without support of the coalition partner, the Green Party. The New Democrat-Green alliance declared its opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion when it took power by a one-seat
margin last June. Municipal governments also resist the project.
Notley’s position is no less tenuous. She’ll face
consolidated conservative opposition in elections
next year and needs the Albertan economy to grow
robustly. Without new pipeline capacity for production from the oil sands, that will be difficult.
Aggravating Notley’s problems is growing recognition that she’s been snookered in a climate deal
with the federal government. The National Energy
Board approved the Trans Mountain expansion along
with replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3, between Alberta and the US, after Notley agreed to tax carbon
dioxide emitted by fuel combustion and to cap CO2
emissions from the oil sands. Now, both projects face
at least delays while Albertans have begun feeling the
cost of climate regulation without the promised economic boost from pipeline construction.
For its part, the government of Liberal Prime
Minister Justin Trudeau says it stands by the NEB’s
approval of the Trans Mountain expansion. So far,
however, that’s all it says. It seems less than eager
either to press a constitutional conflict with the
BC government or to tarnish Trudeau’s reputation
with environmentalists by offering Trans Mountain more than superficial support. For Notley, of
course, federal inaction is dreadful.
Yet the bargain she made with Ottawa seemed
reasonable when she made it. She grounded the
deal in the comforting notion that a government
can pursue both environmental protection and
economic growth, however constrained. She asserted the value of compromise.
That, of course, represents her strategy’s fatal flaw.
Climate activists don’t compromise. They block
work essential to the development of oil and gas
resources. It’s what they do. They don’t base their
fundraising on promises to compromise with the
very organizations they disparage as evil polluters.
They raise money by slaying hydrocarbon dragons,
Notley’s deal with Ottawa was doomed when
the Greens joined the New Democrats in BC, if not
before. Albertans suffer as a result. Meanwhile, the
risks of Canadian oil and gas investments grow.
And for everyone, everywhere, the destabilizing
products of climate politics come again into clear
and troubling view.
A Canadian crisis