Bitumen brawl splits Alberta and B.C. NDP on eve of upending 16-year Liberal dynasty

Comment from Vancouver

VANCOUVER — Bubbling beneath the surface of the B.C. campaign trail is a bitumen brawl between this province’s New Democrats and Alberta’s. And while neither political party seems willing to speak openly about the issue, the internal rift threatens unity at a time when the Orange Crush is poised to spill across B.C., upending the 16-year dynasty of the Liberals.

Early last week, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley gave the clearest sign of the trouble between her party and the B.C. NDP, publicly admitting she has barred her staff from taking a leave of absence to assist them. It comes as something of a surprise, given the fact B.C. NDP staffers were seen as being instrumental in securing Notley’s historic win in 2015.

“Certainly, it’s difficult for them to be working for our government, and then also supporting candidates who would be opposed to the successful construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” Notley told Don Braid of the Calgary Herald last Thursday. “We see that as being critical to our economic prosperity and growth in this province. And so, that is the message that has been delivered and I trust that people will follow it.”

Some might see Notley’s stance as being critical to the Alberta NDP’s slim chances of winning re-election in that province in 2019, especially after spending the first two years in power pushing through an unpopular carbon tax and lauding the Trudeau government’s own carbon tax.

Of course, that support depended heavily on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s flip-flop on the pipeline issue, as noted by Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based environmental activist non-profit.

On Nov. 29, 2016, Trudeau and his government approved the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline, which aims to transport 850,000 barrels of oil per day to Burnaby’s Burrard Inlet terminal, for export to foreign markets.

“The gap between the two positions is reflective of the gap between Alberta’s interests and B.C.’s interests,” said Nagata. “I do think that the Alberta government believes that it is acting in the best interests of its own re-election.”

The Dogwood Initiative, along with dozens of other environmental groups and watchdogs, as well as First Nations bands, has argued that Alberta reaps all of the rewards of such a pipeline, but takes none of the risks of a catastrophic crude oil spill.

“I’m not surprised the two parties, who are taking an essentially populist view, would come out with opposite positions on either side of the Rockies.”

Nagata isn’t swayed by the argument that the pipeline is in the national interest, either. With the current price per barrel of oil hovering at just below US$50, he says the number would have to double before the reward could possibly outweigh the environmental risk.

Currently, the heavy sulphur oilsands bitumen being exported from Alberta is being shipped to refineries in the U.S., and then reimported to Canada, where Vancouver drivers are frustrated to find it for sale at the pumps at $1.40 a litre.

“I would argue that at current prices, what we’re doing with crude oil mimics the effects of shipping out raw logs and buying back furniture,” said Nagata.

And if Trans Mountain bitumen isn’t being exported to Asia, there’s an argument that there are already enough pipelines that service U.S. refineries now, including Line 3, Seaway, Clipper and the contentious Keystone XL.

Bruce Hill has been a pipeline watchdog and activist for the past 15 years in Terrace, located in Northwestern B.C. He notes Canada is importing roughly the amount of refined oil per day as it exports in raw crude, mainly from the Middle East. He argues Canada would be best served by building oil refineries where the strongest demand lies (Ontario) and sending the pipelines east — not west.

“It seems to me that the best customer we could have — where we would have the most control over environmental impacts and price structures and be able to do it right — would be if we were selling oil to ourselves directly.”

But if the energy battle between the B.C. and Alberta NDP seems at odds, Hill says the bigger “policy vacuum” can be found in the federal NDP. When leader Tom Mulcair was in Terrace to give a speech three years ago, Hill says he asked whether the NDP would be willing to lead a conversation on Canada’s energy policy.

“He said, ‘Absolutely not. This is a provincial jurisdiction.’ ”

But if the B.C. NDP are elected May 9 and leader John Horgan sticks to his promise to block Trans Mountain, who has jurisdiction? It’s an issue that will surely end up in federal court, along with the municipalities of Vancouver and Burnaby who also oppose the project. Hill said Kinder Morgan may even decide to spike the project rather than go through the $500-million mistake that was the doomed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

Notley’s aggressive and adamant stance only makes sense from a purely political standpoint: her re-election depends on supporting Alberta’s oilsands. A Mainstream Research poll taken in February finds Notley’s NDP in third place, with 23 per cent of support among voters.

But is it still worth investing in fossil fuels? Earlier this month, Tesla Motors moved past General Motors to become the most valuable automaker in the U.S., signalling the rise in renewable energies spurred on almost entirely by free market forces.

The balance of power in B.C. could shift on May 9, not just for the B.C. NDP, but across the entire country, as the fight over crude oil spills into a messy national debate.

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