Notley’s oil-by-rail plan has no backers

With a provincial election to be held on or before May 31 of next year, and her province’s energy industry in crisis, Premier Rachel Notley is essentially on her own.

The fact of her political isolation was made clear when she travelled to the federal capital last week to personally sound the alarm about the crippling toll an oil glut is taking on her province and on Canada’s economy.

The situation has become so dire, she argued, that it justifies the buying, by governments, of 7,000 extra rail cars to make up for a dearth of pipeline capacity to get the oil to markets. She wants Justin Trudeau’s government to pitch in.

But if Notley hoped that delivering her message within shouting distance of Parliament Hill would make a significant difference, she was wrong.

In the House of Commons, her oil-by-rail solution found no champion on the opposition benches.

In a boilerplate statement, the Liberals responded that a committee was considering all options. No meeting was scheduled between Notley and Trudeau.

The lack of resonance of Notley’s message on Parliament Hill was made even more striking by the fact that MPs did spend a lot of time debating the crisis that has caused Alberta oil prices to go into free fall.

At the initiative of the Conservative official Opposition, the House sat until midnight to debate the issue on Wednesday.

The exchanges featured a lot of the usual reciprocal finger pointing about the stalled pipeline agenda, but elicited little support for Notley’s pitch.

On the contrary, Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the NDP’s sole Alberta member, encouraged the Liberals to decline the premier’s request. She called the notion of shipping more oil by train an “absolutely reprehensible” proposition.

These days, no provincial relationship is more strained than that of the NDP premiers of Alberta and British Columbia. As he plans for next week’s first ministers meeting, Trudeau needs not worry about John Horgan and Notley ganging up on him.

As for Notley’s pro-pipeline Conservative counterparts in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, they, like Andrew Scheer’s MPs, are content to wait her out in the expectation that they will be dealing with a fellow conservative Alberta premier before July 1.

There was a time when Notley could make up for the lack of solidarity of her fellow New Democrats and dispense with more like-minded provincial allies because she had the ear of the prime minister.

But in the wake of the Trans Mountain pipeline travails, her association with Trudeau has become a political liability. Many of the Alberta voters who want to vote the NDP out next spring are often as keen to send the prime minister a message by doing so as they are to secure a change in provincial government.

On Parliament Hill, more than a few Liberals feel they have already expended too much political capital on the pipeline issue for their own electoral good.

They believe Trudeau has already gone more than the extra mile by nationalizing the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The Liberals can probably thank the NDP’s uncertain performance under Jagmeet Singh for the limited damage to their brand from the Trans Mountain acquisition.

At the same time, the prime minister’s pipeline play has clearly failed to earn him any credit in Alberta.

An impressive politician in her own right, Notley will not be giving up the premier’s office without a fight between now and next spring. On that score, her visit to Ottawa probably made for good domestic politics.

But it also highlighted the fact that, in the possibly jaded eyes of former friends and foes alike on Parliament Hill, her government is living on little more than borrowed time.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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