Opinion: B.C.-Alberta spat could go national

The pipeline battle between British Columbia and Alberta cannot be confined to western Canada.

There are national ramifications to this unseemly trade war that bear close scrutiny from all Canadians.

Monday, B.C. Premier John Horgan said he would take Alberta to dispute settlement under the Canadian free trade agreement because Premier Rachel Notley has banned the import of B.C. wines.

Notley has ended talks on buying B.C. electricity and has successfully pushed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to more aggressively defend and promote his decision to allow the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline that would lead to a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic through Burnaby.

This battle began with Horgan’s announcement that he wanted to halt any increase in diluted bitumen in his province pending further study of his province’s capability of dealing with a marine spill.

Horgan will also appeal a National Energy Board decision that allows Texas-based Kinder Morgan to bypass local bylaws and begin construction of a needed tunnel on Burnaby Mountain.

But this is not just a Horgan-Notley battle.

Put aside for a moment the optics of an internal free trade fight on the eve of key NAFTA talks. Consider the ripple effect for Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

For Trudeau, a major hit to his self-styled progressive climate change policy looms.

In essence, a prime minister who wants to be known as environmentally aware is touting an unpopular pipeline project as a means to combat climate change.

He has accused an NDP premier in B.C., who has formed a coalition with Green Leader Andrew Weaver, of trying to “scuttle” a national climate change plan by blocking an increase in tanker traffic.

Trudeau has always tried to thread the needle on the balance between the economy and greenhouse gas targets, but it is getting more difficult.

He gave his clearest explanation of the political trade-offs to date in an interview last week with the National Observer that did not get the attention it deserved.

“In order to get the national climate change plan – to get Alberta to be part of it, and we need Alberta to be part of it – we agreed to twin an existing pipeline in order to get to work,” he said.

“It was always a question of, if we could move forward responsibly on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, then Alberta would be able to be as ambitious as we needed Alberta to be and get on with the national climate change plan … they were linked to each other.”

Politically, this is accurate. Without Notley in Alberta, Trudeau risks having his national climate plan unravel, and, at least, he will be fighting with Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and possibly Ontario as he imposes carbon pricing on resistant premiers.

But a shorthand rallying cry of “Save the planet, expand a pipeline,” is a difficult sell.

Pushing through expansion over Indigenous objections endangers Trudeau’s overarching Indigenous reconciliation goals. Opposition to this expansion in British Columbia includes Indigenous communities on land that was never ceded. Trudeau has also enthusiastically embraced the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has made it clear that “consent” doesn’t mean a veto. Civil disobedience is a real possibility and the Liberals appear destined to lose B.C. seats in 2019. They may be confident they can make up that loss in Quebec, but it’s not clear who will swoop in to claim Liberal seats.

If one reads between the lines, Singh appears to be in Horgan’s camp, but his message has been inconsistent and vague. He likes to point to a flawed approval process and blame Trudeau, but the NDP leader often appears to have one foot in each camp.

He has not spoken to either Horgan or Notley about the dispute.

If Weaver pushes Horgan to run out the clock and eventually force Kinder Morgan to look elsewhere, Elizabeth May could find some electoral success in 2019.

There is much more to play out in this drama. But it deserves a national stage.

Tim Harper writes on national affairs.

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