Rachel Notley’s political moves on Trans Mountain controversy perfectly timed

BC Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley continue battle over Trans Mountain pipeline

Notley’s intention to sue, retaliate economically against BC designed to stiffen Trudeau’s resolve

Has Rachel Notley failed on the pipeline file? The Alberta Premier has been collateral damage to some extent in the uproar this week over British Columbia’s ham-handed signal that it intends to block dilbit shipments to the West Coast. But criticisms of her fundamentally misunderstand the constitutional and political issues at play.

For starters, pipelines are federal responsibility.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In fact, this is the core of the squabble with British Columbia, which is trying to assert provincial authority in an area that has been historically the exclusive purview of Canada.

That makes this brouhaha Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s responsibility, not Notley’s.

I’ve written columns recently (here and here and here) about Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion project, the question of which level of government is responsible for regulating the pipeline, and the conflict between the principles of “co-operative federalism” (shared jurisdiction over pipelines, BC and Burnaby’s argument) and “paramountcy” (federal authority trumps provincial, Canada’s position and the long-held view of Canadian courts).

All the other nonsense about trade wars and who should have done what are secondary to the fundamental question of which government gets to approve and regulate inter-provincial pipelines.

Since critics like Alberta opposition leader Jason Kenney support federal control, how can they hold Notley accountable for construction delays while jurisdictional matters like municipal permitting are hashed out behind the scenes with the National Energy Board?

It’s not her zoo, nor her monkeys.

Trans Mountain Expansion
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan explaining on City video why he opposes Trans Mountain Expansion.

Alberta bears no blame for the current deadlock. That falls on Horgan’s shoulders and, to an equal extent, those of Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, whose bureaucrats were flayed in the NEB’s recent ruling for their delays and obstructionism.

But, critics will argue, Notley’s Climate Leadership Plan – the carbon tax, in particular – was supposed to secure pipeline support from the BC NDP, First Nations, and West Coast eco-activists, yet here they are as opposed as ever.

Well, the critics are being disingenuous.

Alberta’s climate policies were intended to secure the support of Trudeau and the Canadian government, which they did because the Prime Minister acknowledged their importance when he approved Trans Mountain Expansion in 2016.

To a lesser extent, those policies were meant to build support among BC voters, whose support Trudeau will need when the fight with Horgan and company really heats up, as it inevitably will over coming months. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that between 40 and 50 per cent of British Columbians support pipelines, despite a decade-long barrage of anti-pipeline and anti-oil sands agit prop from opponents.

Notley deserves at least some of the credit.

Jason Kenney, leader, United Conservative Party.

No one expects Kenney and the United Conservative Party caucus to pat Notley on the back, that’s not how an opposition works in our political system.

But when the ex-federal Conservative cabinet minister and career politician says the Premier waited too long to threaten BC with economic retaliation and a legal challenge, which he called for a year ago when he was stumping for the UCP leadership, he is wrong.

During that time, the NEB has been fighting the federal cause down in the trenches with the various pipeline opponents, who are led by BC Environment Minister George Heyman and Corrigan.

That fight came to a head just before Christmas when the NEB rejected Burnaby’s assertions – supported with a brief from the BC government – that its civil servants were not mucking about with permit approvals and a re-zoning application, when evidence collected by the national energy regulator proved that indeed they were.

The NEB strongly asserted federal paramountcy and soundly rejected the co-operative federalism position in its ruling, which readers can peruse on the NEB site.

The writing was on the wall for BC and Burnaby.

Heyman’s response was Tuesday’s announcement about the prospective dilbit regulations.

The NEB move and BC’s counter-move, when it finally become clear beyond a shadow of a doubt where the parties stood, were necessary pre-conditions for Alberta to act.

What would have been gained by Notley taking Kenney’s advice and acting a year ago during the early stages of the permitting process?

Absolutely nothing, except inflaming BC and Burnaby and making Kinder Morgan’s job more difficult earlier in the game.

Notley has played this controversy almost perfectly.

Claims to the contrary are focused on the political air war and ignore (or are simply ignorant of) the hotly contested battles in the trenches, where all the important action has taken place.

If there is a legitimate complaint against Notley, it is that she waited too long to take her message to British Columbians.

Her Nov. 30 speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade was masterful and did a lot to promote Alberta’s message in the BC business community.

But she was speaking to the converted. And why didn’t she get to Vancouver much earlier and much more often?

Those are mistakes that have cost Alberta in this fight.

That said, Notley and her cabinet appear to be poised to sue BC and perhaps refuse to buy surplus electricity from the recently approved Site C dam, which would have been a boon for Horgan.

The purpose of those actions is not to persuade her fellow NDP premier.

It is to force Trudeau to act.

Political pressure has built to a feverish pitch, Kinder Morgan has hinted it may cancel the project if permitting continues to drag on, the NEB has established its position on which level of government holds authority – now is the time to push Trudeau into either brokering a deal with Horgan or empowering the NEB to cut out BC and municipalities from approvals and have the NEB issue all future permits.

Notley’s timing is perfect. Now, Alberta awaits the Prime Minister’s response.

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