‘This Might Get Nasty’: Why The Kinder Morgan Stand-Off Between Alberta and B.C. is a Zero-Sum Game

Justin Trudeau, John Horgan, Rachel Notley Kinder Morgan.

The stand-off between Alberta and British Columbia over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline seems to grow in intensity by the minute.

On Tuesday the B.C. NDP announced a proposal to restrict the flow of diluted bitumen from the oilsands through the province until further scientific study is conducted on its behaviour in water.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley fired back on Twitter, arguing B.C. “does not have the right to re-write our constitution & assume powers for itself that it does not have.”

Since then, Alberta has suspended talks over $500 million in annual electricity imports from B.C. and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has hopped into the ring suggesting that national carbon pricing and ocean protection plan may not go ahead without the pipeline getting built.

Oh, and let’s not forget an Italian restaurant in Fort McMurray is no longer serving wine from B.C. in retaliation. It looks like a trade war is brewing between the provinces.

Amongst all of the politicking, it’s easy for the substance of the debate to be lost. The B.C. government is responding to a very real concern about the risk of a spill of diluted bitumen in water. In 2015 the Royal Society of Canada identified seven major knowledge gaps when it comes to the risk of a diluted bitumen spill in water. And B.C. has the responsibility to regulate hazardous substances under the B.C. Environmental Management Act.

It’s worth recalling that the National Energy Board review of the Trans Mountain project never even considered the impacts of oil tankers on the marine environment, so when Trudeau says his government made a “science based” decision, you’ve got to take it with a mega grain of salt.

At the same time, Notley also has very real concerns about the pipeline not going ahead, with the cost differential for Alberta’s oil widening, an industry that’s been hurting from the crash in the price of oil and an election around the corner.

DeSmog Canada chatted with David Moscrop — a political theorist, postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University and regular contributor to Maclean’s magazine — about the unfolding situation.

The B.C. government seems to have been framed as being somewhat unreasonable in their approach to Trans Mountain. What do you make of that?

It depends on which lens you use.

If your lens is that John Horgan needs this in order to win the next election, or to continue to be propped up by Andrew Weaver because the Green Party’s demanding that he opposes the pipeline, then I think it’s fair enough to say that he’s playing chicken with the federation because you want to win — although any of them would do the same damn thing.

Everyone’s a hypocrite, everyone’s full of shit. Everyone’s playing politics.

But on the actual substantive side of it, there are a number of people in the province and party who see pipelines as an existential threat insofar as they contribute to climate change. They look and say “we want an aggressive, radical agenda for addressing the greatest threat to humankind in at least the last 10,000 years.” Is that being unreasonable? They’re interested in the survival of the species. I would say in some sense, in the long run the folks who are being unreasonable are those who refuse to commit to an aggressive climate change agenda.

What do you make of Premier Rachel Notley’s response, bringing up how this is an attack on Confederation and all the rest?

Oh my god, are you kidding me? It’s all so stupid. Crack open any Canadian politics textbook, even the bad ones, and it’s a history of the federation fighting from even before day one. This is what we do.

I wrote about this a little while ago for Maclean’s. We’re always smacking each other and always fighting with each other and with the federal government. We’re always playing one another off this province or that province or the feds. It’s hyperbole.

She’s in a tough spot. I don’t begrudge her the politics of it. She’s in the same spot in some ways that Horgan is in British Columbia. They want to win the next election. That’s politically reasonable, it’s just the nature of having a federation. But that doesn’t mean that the New Democrats in British Columbia shouldn’t be fighting this tooth and nail for both political and substantive reasons.

Were you surprised to see Alberta announce that it’s suspending discussions about electricity purchases over this?

No. The only thing that would have surprised me is if they got a posse together and marched across the border. That would a little bit surprising. I think we could take them. Anything short of that isn’t surprising to me because Premier Notley has to be seen as being tough on British Columbians by standing up for Alberta in the same way that Horgan has to be seen as being tough on Albertans and standing up for B.C. To give the Prime Minister some credit, he has to be seen as standing up for the federation. And he thinks that means he has to support the pipeline.

It’s one of those cases where it’s short-term gain, long-term pain. To oversimplify it, but here’s the essence of the problem: our political and economic cycles are too short. They’re thinking the next election, or the next 10 years — not the next 100 years.

How do you think Trudeau has responded?

He’s hitched to the Alberta wagon now, I think, like it or not … He can’t go back on it now. The political hit on going back on that would be devastating, especially given that people are still talking about electoral reform and he seems a bit of a duplicitous hypocrite.

He’s stuck with it. Alberta’s stuck with it. B.C.’s stuck with it. It’s a standoff, and I don’t think anybody knows how it’s going to end.

If I had to guess, I’d say it might end with Kinder Morgan saying “oh boy, this project isn’t viable anymore, we’re out.” I would imagine that’s the strategy of those who want to stop the pipeline: wait them out, make it become financially unviable or scare off investors. That would certainly be my strategy.

In some ways, all three political groups — the federal government, Alberta and B.C. — would politically win. That might be the political theodicy outcome, the best of all political worlds. If the construction pushes ahead and British Columbians are opposed to this — and boy, the ones who are opposed are really opposed — think they’re not being taken seriously or listened to, it’s going to get nasty very, very quickly.

I would imagine to the point where we’re going to see a kind of reaction that we haven’t seen seen since Montebello or Oka. We’ve already seen some of it on Burnaby Mountain.

Just a reminder that there’s two dimensions that I think people argue across without ever making explicit.

There’s a political dimension — which is to say an electoral dimension, who wins and who loses based on party support — and there’s the substantive policy dimension of it, like what’s good for the economy and what do you trade off against addressing climate change. There’s a legitimate debate to be had on both. But there’s a lot of bad faith activity on both sides, with people conflating those two things and the population is caught in the middle. That’s politics. That said, it’s the future of the country.

Politics is stupid.

You tweeted recently that politicians have done a bad job at addressing a lot of these causes of anger. What would it look like in your mind if politicians were actually addressing them?

These things need to be addressed structurally, and when I say that I mean that we need to find a way to make sure that cycles of boom and bust, continued environmental degradation, continuous growing unaffordability — features that are often common with liberal democracies and capitalist systems — are addressed in a way that’s at least semi-permanent if not permanent.

Part of that has to rely on bringing citizens into the decision-making process, making sure that not only are they listened to but they’re engaged in ways that are more meaningful than a town hall. You have citizen juries or citizen assemblies. You have regular meetings where people are given time and resources to sit down and take part in decision-making and be listened to. And then — and this is critical — you listen to them, follow-up and you do what they think you should do. There’s a lot of well-meaning chatter that never translates into action. We call it “democracy-washing.” You get cover because you went and did a town hall but then you go back and it’s life as usual.

What does that mean? It probably means we need to dedicate state funds to making sure that people can afford to live. We probably need to decriminalize drugs, especially in the case of the opioid epidemic. We need to end housing speculation. We need to decide whether we’re all in on climate change or not. A pipeline agenda is inconsistent with that. These are big things, and it takes a lot of political capital and a lot of guts to get it done. But we’re not doing any of them, really.

When do you guess this might be resolved?

It’s really hard to say. Nobody wins from a trade war. Somebody might lose more than someone else. But nobody wins.

I would imagine all the politicians involved will probably take a bit of punishment because people will get frustrated. If it does stretch out for too long, whomever is up for re-election will bear the brunt of it the most.

One hopes that at some point, everyone realizes that by escalating everyone loses. But I’m not convinced anymore that’s going to happen. This might actually get quite nasty. If they push on and continue to develop the project, at some point the government of British Columbia is going to run out of options. I’m sure the courts will be vigorously involved. At some point, it’s going to hit the ground.

And then it’ll be up to the citizens of British Columbia to react however they think is appropriate. That’s where I think it’ll get particularly nasty, because it will no longer become political in the sense of relations between the provinces and the federal government. It’ll be political in the streets. It will stretch on ’til it’s over, one way or the other — whether it gets built or not. It will never not be a political battle. The question is whether it’s a battle in the courts, in the legislatures, in the press or in the streets? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Image: B.C. Premier John Horgan meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Vancovuer, November 2017. Photo: Prime Minister's Photo Gallery

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