The movement of oil has somehow become a constitutional issue - Alberta and British Columbia are slugging it out.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

April 22, 2018



Today Canada is in the midst of another constitutional crisis as British Columbia and Alberta slug it out over the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline and the delivery of bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to ports in B.C. The pipeline is one of three which were recently approved by the federal government given its constitutional authority over inter-provincial matters.

Today’s global oil prices mean that Alberta desperately needs the efficiency of pipeline transport for its export-destined bitumen to be competitive on world markets. The pipeline in question involves a twinning of an existing pipe being developed by Texas based oil industry giant Kinder Morgan. This should be straightforward, a done deal, and it would be, except for the politics.

john Horgan BC

John Horgan, the NDP Premier of British Columbia and kept in office by a couple of Green Party members is battling out the twinning of an existing pipeline with the NDP Premier of Alberta.

B.C. NDP premier Horgan feels that if he doesn’t at least try to stop the pipeline, his fragile coalition with the B.C. Greens, who vehemently oppose all ‘tar sands’ development, will collapse ending his brief spell as government. So he’s chosen to tilt at windmills, challenge the pipeline on shaky environmental safety grounds, where the province may claim some authority.

Rivers 23 Notley fingers pointing

Rachel Notley, NDP Premier of Alberta explaining that when her oil can go to BC their wine can come into Alberta

There is a lot of politics on all sides. Rachel Notley’s NDP government is facing an election next year and she has to be seen defending Alberta with her life, which she is doing in spades. Her success here will be the key to her getting re-elected, despite the polls which confirm Albertan’s perennial preference for the Tories and their new leader, Jason Kenny.

And Kenny’s biggest ally is Kinder Morgan which is exploiting this B.C. opposition by halting construction and threatening to withdraw from the pipeline project entirely. There are a few protesters at the work sites, mainly environmental groups since most indigenous communities have signed on to the project. But halting construction has panicked Albertans who are understandably fed up with waiting and watching one pipeline proposal after another bite the dust.

Liberal MP and leadership candidate Justin Trudeau attends a Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal, Sunday, November 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Justin Trudeau believes the federal government has the power and the right to approve the twinning of the pipeline but he doesn’t appear to be sure how he can get shovels into the ground.

The Liberals have been unequivocal that the pipeline is within their exclusive jurisdiction and it will be build. But that will be problematic if Kinder Morgan pulls the plug. And besides, Albertans don’t trust the Liberals and learned to hate Justin’s father for doing to them what they think he should be doing to B.C.’s Horgan right now. Why doesn’t he just invoke the War Measures Act (Emergency Act) like his Dad did and tell Horgan….”just watch me”? Wasn’t getting involved in Alberta’s energy what Pierre is still scorned for today?

We have this unique situation of two NDP premiers from neighbouring and historically best friend provinces now at each other’s throats with threats to cancel electricity contracts and cut off wine and oil and bitumen.

The new federal NDP national leader is missing in action while his political kin are heading for the OK corral. Perhaps it’s just that the federal NDP is still pondering their Leap Manifesto which prescribed shutting down all tar sands eventually.

B.C.’s claim of provincial jurisdiction over federal laws has found a resonance with the Liberal leader in Quebec – also facing an election soon, and looking to shore up those errant separatists who might be persuaded to stick with the Liberals over the PQ. After all it wasn’t that long ago that a proposed Energy East project would have driven another pipeline through Quebec en route to the Maritimes.

Alberta has offered to put up some money to soothe Kinder Morgan, and the feds are thinking of buying in and maybe even buying Kinder out. It’s not clear that Kinder Morgan wants to sell, but everything has its price and perhaps the government might sweeten the deal with a threat of nationalizing in the public interest.

Pipeline -Transmountain

The federal government says the Trans Mountain pipeline twinning will be done. Just when is the real issue.

Federal investment into the project would add a whole new dimension to the potential fight between the two levels of government. And yes everyone knows that the feds would win, but when things go to court they don’t always leave the judges’ benches the way we might expect. Take the poor fellow who thought he could bring cheap Quebec beer into New Brunswick. We live in the same country –  right?

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.     Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

Trans Mountain –    Leap Manifesto –     Alberta Threats

Free The Beer Ruling

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4 comments to The movement of oil has somehow become a constitutional issue – Alberta and British Columbia are slugging it out.

  • Ray Rivers

    Thanks for your comment Walter – But if we want to stop the oil sands development then shouldn’t we first curb the demand for oil? How many indigenous and environmental protesters drove their gasoline powered cars and pickup trucks to their protests? Is oil from fracking any better/safer for the environment? Ask the people of Lac Megantic if pipelines are worse than trains for the transport of oil?

    The pipelines received federal approval in part because Alberta undertook to impose a carbon tax on its residents and to otherwise cap its GHG emissions consistent with Canada’s Paris climate change commitments. And most indigenous tribes have signed onto the Trans Mountain pipeline and will benefit from the project.

  • Beneath the politics, hard reality is that petroleum products are ubiquitous and necessary in our current level of development. So the fundamental question is How can the raw petroleum be safely transported from site of origin to the plants which render it into useful products. Oil trains have had spectacular accidents, as have tanker ships. Truck transport is inefficient and unacceptably dangerous. Pipelines demonstrable leak and/or are vulnerable to sabotage either through crude physical attack or through cyber manipulation of pumping stations.

    All that being said, the general public might be astounded at life without any petroleum products at all. Until safe and reliable transport is devised there will always be risks.

  • Walter Mulkewich

    Its not just a political or provincial federal conflict, its about protecting our environment and the lands of our native people.

    • Hans

      Agreed – When B.C. had a small spill resulting from a boat sinking a year or so ago, they were unable to deal with it effectively and efficiently. The bitumen in “dilbit” would sink to the ocean floor in the eventually inevitable spill, and stay there for many decades with devastating results.

      Ideally, Athabasca tar sands crude should be refined in Alberta, by Alberta workers, and then exported as relatively “clean” product at a much higher price than dilbit.

      Alternatively – if they still exist – perhaps the pipelines that used to bring Venezuelan Lagotreco crude from Portland, Maine to Montreal’s refineries could be joined to the Canadian InterProvincial Pipelines system from Montreal to Alberta to take Alberta crude to the U.S. east coast for export.
      It’s a greater distance than through B.C., but a lot safer than rail cars.