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Editorial comment

Trade wars

Kinder Morgan’s CAN$7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline project has fractured the relationship between two of Canada’s provinces, bringing Alberta and British Columbia to blows. B.C.’s new NDP government is fighting the pipeline, pushing a campaign labelled #ToastTheCoast, which acts to protect B.C.’s coastline and waterways. B.C. Premier John Horgan announced in late January that his province was going to restrict increases in pipeline shipments of bitumen from Alberta to B.C. ports until further environmental studies were concluded. Horgan heads up a coalition with the Green party, so precluding Albertan bitumen greater access to its Pacific shores appeases this section of his party base.

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Thus, two NDP governments are engaged in a pipeline war, although it’s a battle with no ambiguity in terms of who has the upper hand. B.C. has no constitutional authority to restrict oil or any other product from moving through a federally approved pipeline: which the expansion project is, having been approved by the NEB in May 2016. Provinces do not have authority to regulate what goes through pipelines: this falls to the federal government.

The Trans Mountain expansion project will twin the existing 1150 km pipeline running from Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, B.C. and will triple capacity along the route.

Federal and Alberta governments deny moving in retaliation, but Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has nevertheless established a high-powered task force to recommend to government possible retaliatory trade actions (with a view to pressuring B.C. to back down over the pipeline). According to Notley, the panel will make sure that the province and the country doesn’t stand still on Trans Mountain: “This project was approved in the national interest and it must be built in the national interest. We are not going to stand down until that happens.”

Following the pronouncement from Horgan, Alberta cut off talks to purchase CAN$500 million worth of electricity from B.C.; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abruptly cancelled a news conference to announce a joint B.C.-Ottawa childcare scheme; and Notley banned wine imports from B.C. (which adds a new level of meaning to the #ToastTheCoast campaign). B.C. Liberals claim that a new trade war between the two provinces has escalated out of control, with collateral damage affecting many innocent parties.

Another pipeline project has come under fire amongst all this political upheaval: the Alberta Department of Energy formally voiced its opposition on 8 February to the NEB over the North Montney Mainline Extension, a proposed natural gas pipeline linking B.C. gas with markets further east in Canada. Alberta Energy Minister Michelle Mungall insists that the project was always going to be scrutinised and that the application to change the tariff type assigned to the project was inevitable regardless of controversy surrounding any other cross-province pipeline.

In these political games, Notley is taking a tough and uncompromising stance: it’s the perfect opportunity for her make a stand, because this project has, after all, already been approved. Alberta is in desperate need for revenue from exports to Asia, and a win on this will help Notley when she faces re-election in 2019.

The success of Trans Mountain would be advantageous not just for Alberta but for B.C. and the nation as a whole. Alberta is far from acting solely for its own benefit: the expansion project was approved because it will bring benefits to Canada and will move oil in a safe, secure mode of transportation. Conservatives have accused Trudeau of running the clock on Trans Mountain, noting that the authorisation for the pipeline expires on 30 September 2021, unless construction has begun on the project. He says he stands firm on the decision to build the pipeline, but still it drags on. Trans Mountain cannot be allowed to falter on the basis of continued interprovincial discord.

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