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B.C.'s self-damaging and silly pipeline war

British Columbia Premier John Horgan started an economic war with Alberta over oil shipments. A lot of people, starting with B.C.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan started an economic war with Alberta over oil shipments. A lot of people, starting with B.C. wine producers, relearned the inevitable consequences: wars are unpredictable, they tend to spiral out of control, and innocent civilians usually get hurt.

The conflict was incredibly self-damaging and silly. Horgan found a way to call a truce without major loss of prestige (and what could be more important than preserving his dignity?). He agreed to ask a court whether B.C. has a right to ban shipments of bitumen through an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.

The pipeline still faces much uncertainty, though. And if B.C. managed to defy constitutional logic and win its case, that would open a nightmarish path to real economic wars between provinces.

Polling suggests a slight majority of British Columbia residents actually support expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

We’re seeing an emotional minority gum up the works. They are being abetted by a new premier who has immediately shown himself to be a small-minded manipulator. It was bad enough that B.C. already extracted a $1-billion payment from Trans Mountain just like a medieval robber baron would.

Here’s what Horgan said after Alberta reacted strongly to B.C.’s threat to ban expanded bitumen shipments: “I don’t see what the problem is.”

To which he added: “Talking about our intention to consult with British Columbians is not provocative, it's not starting anything.”

He’s either clueless or a brazen liar. It’s probably even worse.

Horgan may think vague threats will convince the Kinder Morgan company to abandon the project and he’s fine with doing business that way. More likely, he is ready to accept a pipeline expansion, but thought he could manoeuvre the federal government into forcing the decision and taking all the political blame while he looked like a tragically defeated hero.

Either way, he is a cynical game player impressed with his own cleverness.

He is also pandering to irrational fixations. Yes, moving oil in tankers creates risks to British Columbia’s coastal environment. Why that would be more dangerous than a drug epidemic currently killing about three people a day in B.C. is a good question.

But much of the opposition to the Trans Mountain project is not based on real risk assessment.

Leave aside the question of why existing bitumen transport is acceptable but more is not. Some people are imagining the Strait of Juan de Fuca turned into a giant oil slick, or the city of Burnaby devastated by a conflagration that looks like a Second World War firebombing. Others simply want to stop oilsands production.

Still, Albertans may want to think about their own role in the general nuttiness. They are no strangers to opposing energy development. Many people in Sherwood Park passionately fought construction of a high-voltage electricity transmission line a few years ago on grounds of health fears.

More importantly, for the last century, Alberta has been second only to Quebec in resisting federal authority and trying to expand provincial power. Alberta wanted a country where premiers could act as grandstanding obstructionists? Well, it got its wish.

Now an Alberta premier has to navigate the resulting mess with level-headed determination. And Albertans are calling for strong federal action. Yet they have contributed to so discrediting federal authority that the government no longer wants to impose that authority on the provinces — thus the clever countermove to have B.C. test its jurisdiction in court rather than Ottawa simply overriding Horgan’s legal game.

Then there’s the political aspect. No federal government wants to let premiers block interprovincial movement of goods. But Albertans have to count on principled federal decision making because Alberta voters have always responded to federal building of the energy industry with a political slap in the face.

In 1956, a Liberal government forced a decision to build the TransCanada pipeline. That line has carried natural gas east for decades. Voters here responded by cutting the Liberals from four Alberta seats in 1953 to one in 1957 and none in 1958.

In 1996, a Liberal government provided tax breaks to help the province set the foundation for scores of billions of dollars in oilsands investment that has lasted two decades. Voters here cut the Liberals from four seats won in 1993 to two in 1997.

And Albertans are equal-opportunity when it comes to ungrateful politics. A federal Progressive Conservative government pushed through a free-trade deal that solidified access to U.S. energy markets in 1988. Voters here started abandoning the PCs and gave the new Reform party 15.4% of the vote in the 1988 election, then reduced the PCs from 25 seats won in 1988 to zero in 1993.

All part of Alberta’s unique way of winning friends and influencing people.

Mark Lisac

About the Author: Mark Lisac

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