Alberta must stop shying away from oil sands, pipeline politics and engage rest of Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley with oil executives.

National energy strategy gives Alberta framework within which to work out compromise between energy development, climate change

I’ve never understood why so many Albertans complain about the “politics” around energy, as if we could someone wave a magic wand and make the oil sands and pipelines apolitical. This is such a silly attitude. Civic politicians will tell you even potholes can be intensely political. Why should the biggest industry in Canada, with the biggest environmental footprint, not be political? And why are Alberta’s political and industry leaders so reluctant to engage their political opponents? Especially in provinces like British Columbia where opposition is very high? The answer to the intense politicization of the oil sands and pipelines is not to wish away the politics, but to do politics better. That idea is the basis for this July 17, 2015 column.


As of this morning, Canada has a new national energy strategy. Why should anyone care? Because it turns out that if you want to build oil pipelines across the country, politics really really matter.

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

What sort of politics, you ask?

Witness the recent G7 commitment to “decarbonize” the economy by 2100. Canada has lost status and influence on the world stage because Prime Minister Stephen Harper routinely obstructs climate change initiatives, so signing the joint declaration last month must have been painful for him, but he did it anyway because – smart pol that he is – even he recognizes a steamroller when it’s bearing down on him.First, climate change. Deniers, skeptics, and conspiracy theorists can moan all they like about wasting energy and resources on something that doesn’t exist, but there is an international consensus that it does, and that humans need to address the carbon load they have placed on the global ecosystem.

Second, while the Canadian Constitution clearly and unequivocally grants authority over inter-provincial “works” like pipelines, the pitched battles in British Columbia over the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects demonstrate that politics matter. Yes, First Nations’ growing clout over resources – thanks to numerous legal victories – has played a big role in the fierce opposition faced by the projects. But deft political maneuvering by lower mainland mayors like Derek Corrigan in Burnaby, who has two-thirds of local residents solidly opposing expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, will prove to be a major obstacle for the project even if the National Energy Board grants approval.


UBC law professor Margot Young.

As UBC legal scholar Margot Young has stressed in several interviews, constitutional law plays itself out in the shadow of local politics. Politics, therefore, matter a lot.

Which is why we should be admiring BC Premier Christy Clark, who is thus far successfully navigating the tightrope between the vociferous provincial environmental movement and large-scale energy development, like the LNG industry she hopes to plant on the West Coast. Clark has turned out to be a much more sophisticated political operator than the predecessors of recently elected Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Alison Redford (who started the national energy strategy debate in 2011) and Jim Prentice.

The Liberal premier’s five conditions for “approving” heavy oil pipelines were a political masterstroke. They have allowed her to harshly criticize industry when something goes wrong – witness her demands that BC take over oil spill response after the small English Bay release of 17 barrels of bunker fuel from a grain carrier in April – but to still support development and to not close the door to pipelines. That sort of flexibility is essential in today’s fractious public debate over energy and climate change.

Until now, Alberta politicians were so pro-development that their public declarations of love for the wee beasties and birds of Mother Earth were viewed as self-serving and insincere.

All that changes with the national energy strategy.

national energy strategy

Proposed route for the Energy East pipeline.

Critics will bemoan the lack of concrete targets for greenhouse gas reductions and specific go-forward strategies. But this isn’t that kind of document.

This is all about politics.

Notley’s media statement sums it up nicely: “[T]his strategy speaks directly to our province’s new determination to develop our energy economy while making progress to address climate change – a priority Albertans share with Canadians across the country.”


In other words, Notley now has the political equivalent of Clark’s five conditions. The national energy strategy gives Alberta a framework within which to address environmental issues and concerns, but still push for projects critical to the development of the oil sands, like TransCanada’s 1.1 million b/d Energy East pipeline, which is running into stiff headwinds in Ontario and Quebec.

Financial Post columnist Claudia Catteneo yesterday accused Notley of selling out to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard by giving him “final say” over Energy East, which is just a silly argument because it ignores the political complexities of building a pipeline from Alberta in the west to New Brunswick in the east. Ottawa may have constitutional jurisdiction, but it can’t ram environmentally sensitive energy infrastructure down the throats of Canada’s two largest provinces, any more than it can in British Columbia.

If Energy East is to be built, then in typical Canadian fashion there must be compromise and accommodation. As Notley said in her release, “The consensus reached today on what we’re seeking to achieve is the first step towards making real progress.”

A national energy strategy doesn’t mean Energy East or any other pipeline is a slam dunk. But it is a necessary precondition if Alberta ever hopes to realize its oil sands ambitions and reaching new markets.

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