Time for Alberta to contemplate a future without new pipelines?

After months of Alberta wailing and teeth gnashing, bills C69 and C48 were passed by the Senate Thursday and will soon become law. While Premier Jason Kenney gears up for a legal challenge of the “no new pipelines” legislation, as he calls it, industry and its boosters may want to ponder this question: Does Canada absolutely need to build more pipelines?

This isn’t a frivolous question, or shouldn’t be. Building a pipeline that crosses a provincial or state boundary in North America is damn difficult thanks to climate and environment activism, local and regional concerns, opposition from indigenous communities, and in all likelihood, less public support as the energy transition really takes hold.

Let’s be frank, the industry doesn’t help itself. When Jeff Tonken, CEO of Birchcliff Energy and chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), says in a media conference that “What we believe is the federal government is positioning itself to let the energy industry die so that they can get votes to get re-elected,” Canadians outside Alberta roll their eyes.

Seriously, CAPP? None of your government relations experts pulled CEO Tim McMillan aside and advised against putting THAT comment in a media release? No one in the communications department suggested THAT comment might raise an eyebrow or two in the press gallery?

So much for CAPP’s insistence that it’s non-partisan. If the chair of your board thinks the national government is deliberately sabotaging the country’s leading export sector, and your CEO regularly echoes federal and provincial conservative politicians, you don’t get to declare yourself politically neutral.

Now, Alberta is accustomed to bozo eruptions from fringe – and sometimes not so fringe – conservative politicians, but bozo eruptions from the oil and gas boardroom are flat out dangerous. Canadians need to believe that energy companies and their trade associations are run by sober, thoughtful executives who can be trusted with consequential decisions. When CAPP pulls back its own curtain to reveal a nutty Wizard pulling the levers, then thinks nothing of issuing press releases containing an outrageous comment by said nutty Wizard, then Canadians can be forgiven for wondering if the industry can really be trusted.

Let’s not forget that the same press release included comments from the CEOs of the industry’s biggest corporations demanding that the federal government accept, instead of reject as it did quite rightly, at least a dozen amendments that were flat out “egregious” in the opinion of University of Calgary law professor Martin Olszynski.

The cherry on this bloody sundae is the numerous oil and gas industry stalwarts, some of whom have very high public profiles, who take to social media with horrendously awful narratives, calling Canadian pipeline opponents traitors to their country and suggesting they be hung from the nearest tree, for instance.

Of course, let’s not forget the trucker pipeline rallies that were quickly and easily infiltrated by the white nationalist, conspiracy-spouting “yellow vest” movement.

Add it all up and no wonder Canadians watching from outside Alberta are aghast. Sooner or later, that dismay will translate into dwindling support.

The industry is fortunate support across Canada is as high as it is, at least for the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project, which Canadians view as an issue of economic fairness.

A new Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll released Friday estimates that 56 per cent of Canadians approve of the Trudeau government’s decision to re-approve TMX, while only 24 per cent disapprove and 21 per cent are undecided. Even in British Columbia, the terminus of the new pipeline and epicentre of the opposition, 52 per cent agree the Liberals did the right thing.

The Angus Reid survey is consistent with previous polls and doesn’t appear to be an outlier, which is good news for the industry.

Past polls, however, provide a more nuanced picture. While pipeline-opposing environmentalists remain 20 per cent of the Canadian population, the percentage backing more oil and gas development and the building of more pipelines have slipped (from 58% to 44%) and the neutral cohort without strong feelings either way has grown, according to Abacus Data.

We Canadians have unconsciously crafted a deal with the energy sector that is typical of our pragmatic, centrist nature: as long as governments enact policies to hasten the transition to clean energy, we give a hearty thumbs up for oil and gas development, including pipelines. Again, this comes through loud and clear in the Abacus surveys.

Which trend is likely to dominate over the next five to 10 years? The slide from firm support into neutrality (and, presumably, eventually into outright opposition) or maintenance of the more than 50 per cent endorsement enjoyed by TMX?

The former is probably a safer bet given the ongoing climate crisis and the accelerating pace of the transition from fossil fuels to electricity generated by low-carbon technologies like wind and solar. Oh, and the tendency of industry and its supporters to obnoxious comments that must eventually have an effect on Canadian public opinion.

Maybe it’s time for Alberta to think about the unthinkable: never being able to build another pipeline TMX, Keystone XL to US Gulf Coast markets, and the Line 3 replacement are completed early next decade.

This isn’t to argue that the Alberta oil sands shouldn’t expand – I laid out a case for that expansion in my book, The New Alberta Advantage: Technology, policy, and the future of the oil sands – but that producers should consider alternatives like partial upgrading (that could free up as much as 30% of the space in pipelines carrying diluted bitumen), encouraging Enbridge to bring on stream the roughly 500,000 barrels per day of existing capacity it has on the back burner, and scaling up the Canapux technology currently being piloted by CN Rail.

At the every least, the Alberta-based industry should have the conversation. The alternative is to discover a few years from now that Kenney, CAPP, and CEPA were right all along, Bill C69 really is a “no new pipelines law,” and there isn’t a Plan B.

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