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Pipeline drama provides great politics, dubious policy
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Lee Harding on the pipeline controversyCanada’s latest political drama has come from the state of jeopardy of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The federal government has announced it will take over the project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion.

The B.C. government is asking the courts if it can block the pipeline, creating bipartisan agreement by Alberta politicians for some radical policies.

The United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta and the NDP government of Alberta co-operated to fast track legislation that gives Alberta the right to stop the flow of oil to British Columbia. More surprisingly, they both said they supported provincial and federal involvement and tax dollars to save the project (although the UCP criticized the deal when it was finally announced).

This is as close as Canadian politics gets to reality TV, with self-interested actors allied by necessity when embroiled in conflict against a common enemy.

Unfortunately, political drama doesn’t equal good policy. Canadians, and especially Albertans, have every reason to be wary of recent developments given the history of this drama and the potential consequences.

Since 2000, Americans have been involved in subverting the Canadian oil sands. For instance, more than half of the David Suzuki Foundation contributions come from American sources. And at the request and funding of the Tides Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Corporate Ethics International launched the Tar Sands Campaign, whose strategy “was to land-lock the tar sands so their crude could not reach the international market where it could fetch a high price per barrel. This meant national and grassroots organizing to block all proposed pipelines.”

The Fair Questions website uncovered the Tar Sands Campaign funding, resources and co-ordination with groups in Canada. This campaign has had remarkable success in changing the political culture of Canada, contributing to the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and the premiers primarily involved in the pipeline dispute.

Sometimes that influence was focused and active, as shown by the connections between Tides Foundation and the Leadnow campaign, which claims to have helped take 25 seats from the Conservatives in the 2015 federal election. In just one example, Leadnow paid staff and 130 volunteers working Winnipeg’s Elmwood-Transcend riding, helping topple the Conservative incumbent by just 61 votes.

After the Liberals swept to federal power in 2015, newly-appointed chief of staff Gerald Butts was regarded as the brains behind the government. As a former CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, he had been vocally opposed to the oil sands. Such deeply-held convictions don’t vanish quickly.

The government stuffed the National Energy Board with Liberals but also said it would give final decisions to cabinet, not the NEB, as the Conservatives had done. Although the prime minister approved Enbridge’s Line 3 and approved the Trans Mountain pipeline in November 2016, Northern Gateway was rejected due to environmental sensitivities (never mind the numerous tankers going up and down the Alaskan coast already).

Trudeau added that his approval was due to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s energy plan, thereby bolstering the politics of progressives even while approving a pipeline.

In August 2017, the federal government announced that pipelines had to account for downstream greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in their environmental impact. This added onus led TransCanada to give up on its Energy East line. The government had killed a pipeline without appearing to do so. Its duplicity was revealed in February when information requests made by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation proved that the government doesn’t apply the downstream emissions criteria on oil coming into Canada.

At the same time, the squabble intensified between B.C. resisting Alberta pipelines and Alberta talking tough in response. It’s always been politically advantageous to defend your people and interests against the imposition of others and this is no different.

In the face of rising B.C. government opposition, Kinder Morgan announced that unless an unlikely solution was found by May 31, it would not dedicate any more to the $7.4-billion project than the $1.1 billion it already had.

Alberta says B.C. has no right to shut off the flow of oil through pipelines, so it introduced legislation to make Alberta do the very same thing. And while protesting self-interested provincial jurisdiction in the national interest, it asserts provincial jurisdiction in the name of the whole country.

Now the project belongs to the federal government. In the 1980s, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program created Petro-Canada, headquartered in Calgary. Alberta’s oil barons called the headquarters “Red Square,” after the communist regime in Moscow. In those days, Albertans and their politicians railed against a Trudeau Liberal government whose policies devastated the energy industry.

Now, when Trudeau Liberals have done the same thing, Alberta politicians rejoice.

No matter how many Alberta politicians offer their support, Canadians should be wary of federal investment.  The bailout of the auto industry cost the Ontario and federal governments a combined $3.7 billion.

The last time Notley stood beside energy leaders was when she rolled out her Climate Leadership Plan. The government’s plan called for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands that essentially allowed those projects to fully come on line but would prevent any future developments. Thus, a key goal of the Tar Sands Campaign was fulfilled, all while Alberta oil tycoons applauded.

Let’s hope people stop cheering and start thinking.

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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