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Opinion

Trudeau lacks means to end Alberta-B.C. feud

By Chantal HÉbert      

Justin Trudeau could not have done anything to resolve the Alberta-B.C. feud in a manner that reflects his commitment to see the Trans Mountain project succeed that he would not have been willing or able to replicate in a battle against Quebec and potentially Ontario.

In the escalating feud between Alberta and British Columbia over the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is—for now—a referee without a whistle, writes Chantal Hébert.
The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

In the escalating feud between Alberta and British Columbia over the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is—for now—a referee without a whistle.

Much as he might want to call an end to the hostilities between the NDP governments of the two provinces, he lacks the means to enforce a quick timeout between them.

That could change over time. But things may have to get worse before Trudeau has a shot, if not at making them better, at least at forcing a resolution of the issue.

By now, the federal government has used all the back channels at its disposal to try to mediate the dispute between Edmonton and Victoria.

Sticks and carrots have been hinted at. In a B.C. interview last week, Trudeau linked his government’s $1.5-billion coastal protection plan to the building of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

B.C. Premiers John Horgan, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, pictured in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2017 at the first ministers’ meeting. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

He tried to make a case that the federal-provincial consensus to put a floor price on carbon would not be sustainable, absent some positive developments for Alberta’s energy industry.

But for federal mediation to work, at least one of the two feuding NDP premiers would have to have a political incentive to meet the other part way.

As it happens, neither side has much room to give up ground to the other. Ever since the advent of a Green-supported minority NDP government in B.C., the two provinces have been on track for a head-on  collision over pipelines. The alternative for either of them was a potential derailment.

This is a war Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has to win. She cannot afford to see the Trans Mountain project abandoned, especially as a result of the actions of a fellow NDP premier. She also needs to be seen to be pulling no punches on behalf of her province.

The survival of B.C. Premier John Horgan’s minority government is conditional on the continued support of the Green Party. He was elected on the promise of using every means at his government’s disposal to prevent the Trans Mountain pipeline from being expanded. With an eye to turning his governing minority into a majority, he needs to be seen to be doing just that.

On that score, his suggestion that his government could restrict the amount of bitumen transiting by rail or pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast is the nuclear weapon in the arsenal. Whether he would be totally unhappy to be prevented from using it as the result of a legal intervention from the federal government is another story.

But for now, B.C.’s threat to close its borders in whole or in part to Alberta’s bitumen is only a proposal. And that means that for all of the inches upon inches of virtual column ink expended on calling for so-called federal leadership, Trudeau can hardly take a province to court for usurping Ottawa’s constitutional powers over what remains a statement of intent.

That will change if B.C.’s intentions are translated into actual regulations. Until that happens, there is nothing concrete for the federal government to take to court.

The Alberta-B.C. feud is politically messy for Trudeau, but it could have been worse.

Were the country’s two NDP premiers not on opposite sides of the pipeline issue, Trudeau would likely face a heavy barrage of New Democrat attacks in the House of Commons. (Mind you, if Notley were not a key ally of his government, the prime minister might be less willing to expend political capital on the Trans Mountain pipeline.)

In any event, a divided NDP house on pipelines stands to blunt the New Democrats’ capacity to score points off the Liberals’ support for the Trans Mountain pipeline in the next election.

And then, had TransCanada not abandoned its bid to link the oilsands to the refineries of the east coast via the Energy East pipeline, Trudeau would be looking at a similarly ugly battle on the Central Canada battlefield.

That would have meant he’d have to articulate a response to the conflict between Edmonton and Victoria that took into account the necessity of regional symmetry.

To be clear, Trudeau could not have done anything to resolve the Alberta-B.C. feud in a manner that reflects his commitment to see the Trans Mountain project succeed that he would not have been willing or able to replicate in a battle against Quebec and potentially Ontario.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. This column was released on Feb. 8. 

The Hill Times 

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