That’s not a very catchy headline, but it’s a true expression of what I’m feeling about the Uncivil War between BC and Alberta over the Trans Mountain Pipeline — and perhaps what you’re feeling too.
I choose to believe that most Canadians are moderate, kind, and at least cautiously optimistic. We’re the sort of folk who do not embrace radical action where incremental change will suffice, are willing to compromise, want the best for others, love our country, and have faith that things will work out okay in the end.
If I’m right about us, then we can be forgiven for scratching our heads over how things came to this — two provincial premiers hurling threats at each other’s citizens across a chasm of Grand Canyonesque proportions and a prime minister who remained curiously detached until a Texas oilman kicked his butt. A Texas oilman — Kinder Morgan president Steven J. Kean, the guy who ordered construction on the pipeline project suspended — who awakened Justin Trudeau out of his torpor with an ultimatum: get this resolved by May 31st or we’re walking away. An inconclusive Sunday morning summit in Ottawa to which Trudeau summoned Premiers Notley and Horgan. A suggestion that the feds will backstop the pipeline financially and with legislation in Parliament – curious notions both, given that:
- the only thing everyone agrees on is that the federal government already has the legal authority to order the pipeline built, and
- all the money in the world is not going to buy off either the protestors or the people not getting arrested at the gates of Kinder Morgan’s facility in Burnaby who nevertheless oppose the pipeline.
I’ve lived on Salt Spring Island, surrounded by the spectacular beauty and nature of Canada’s Pacific coast, for a year now. You don’t take that lightly when that’s what you open your eyes to, every morning when you wake.
I lived the previous 32 years in Calgary — eight of them as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, elected to represent the constituents and to serve the public interest. You don’t leave that behind lightly.
So I stand before you today with one foot in each camp. I can see both sides of the argument. But I don’t detect the will on either side to try and find a mutually acceptable way forward. And that’s unacceptable.
Just as my Charter rights are absolute only to the point that they make it impossible for you to exercise yours, a Premier’s absolute responsibility to put his or her province’s interests first must end at the point where doing so harms another province. If Rachel Notley makes good on her threat to “turn off the taps”, she will harm BC’s economy (although, I suspect, not as much harm as she thinks). John Horgan’s intransigence on the pipeline threatens the livelihoods of thousands of Albertans (although, I suspect, not as much as they think) and his “speculation tax” on homes owned by Canadians whose principal residence is in another province — in most cases, Albertans — is discriminatory. Canadians don’t treat their fellow Canadians this way. (And if you were to read that sentence aloud, you should use the tone of a parent admonishing sibling children, as in, “Johnny, that’s not how we treat Rachel” — and vice versa. I’m just waiting for some evidence that the Prime Minister acted like the adult in the room on Sunday.)
There’s a line in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” — “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” It applies here.
The good news is, the history of Canada is a long series of seemingly intractable disputes between regions that eventually got resolved because both sides compromised. So it can be done. “Resolved” is not “solved”. “Resolved” is give-and-take, lose-lose, neither side gets exactly what it wants, sometimes both sides go away grumpy, maybe even bitter for awhile, maybe bitter for a long while…but in the end, it’s a compromise everybody can grudgingly live with and it’s better than breaking up the band. So, some thoughts on some possible bargaining points…
- A lot of the coastal opposition to the pipeline softens if the pipeline were to be carrying refined petroleum products. They’re seen as less difficult to clean up in the event of a spill and therefore not as toxic as bitumen and dilbit. And Alberta would be seen as adding value by refining the product at home rather than putting it into a pipeline in its crudest form in search of the easy money.
- BC would do well to park its LNG ambitions until after this gets resolved. It is the height of hypocrisy to pursue piping gas to this same pristine coast in order to liquify it and put it on a tanker to China if you’re not prepared to allow Trans Mountain. So either park LNG or work out a quid-pro-quo.
- Since that last point makes it sound to environmentalists (who don’t want either) as though I’m arguing that two wrongs do make a right, get on with beefing up oil spill response up and down the Pacific coast. That’s Ottawa’s job, and right now, it’s effectively tied to the Trans Mountain expansion. Trudeau himself said in Victoria in February that his ten-year, $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan wouldn’t go ahead without the pipeline expansion — although Transport Minister Marc Garneau contradicted him on that in March. And more pressing, the industry-funded Western Canada Marine Response Corporation pressed the pause button on construction of six new spill-response bases last week, arguing that the extra response capability isn’t needed if Trans Mountain doesn’t go ahead. At the core of people’s fears about more pipelines and more tankers is the well-founded suspicion that the industry won’t do anything more to protect the environment than the absolute minimum it is required to do by law.
A final word of advice (or three) for Rachel Notley…
First, don’t underestimate the power and persistence of the protestors out here in Paradise. Last week was the 25th anniversary of the start of the War in the Woods — the months-long, mass protest against clear cut logging in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino. Many of today’s pipeline protestors cut their teeth at Clayoquot Sound, and not only learned how to protest; they learned how to win.
Second, think about this comment I saw on my Facebook feed last night: “We get to risk the coast for a province that doesn’t want a sales tax?” Obviously the two sides in this fight have different priorities, but you need to know this speaks to a perception of Alberta as the spoiled rich kid who lived off Daddy’s trust fund until it was all gone and now thinks everyone else in the family owes him a living. Maybe think about bringing in a PST, as it would get your government’s finances out of the toilet almost immediately and finally allow Alberta to live within its means.
Finally, I understand it’s your duty to promote the pipeline, but as you contemplate punishing BC for pushing back, don’t lose sight of the long game — building a resilient, diversified, sustainable economy. The oil and gas industry is not and never will be your friend, and cannot and never will lead Alberta out of the endless cycle of boom-and-bust.