Canadian oil production keeps on rising. Pipeline capacity to move that oil? Not so much. There is opposition from environmental groups, a fact that is neither a surprise nor, in a democratic society that needs environmental watchdogs, a bad thing. What has been more surprising, and troubling, has been the threats of provincial roadblocks. Canada is not a series of provincial fiefdoms, imposing tolls when a resource from another province moves across borders. That’s not how things are supposed to work under our Constitution.
Until a few years ago, rising Canadian oil production was a promise, not a problem. The pipelines needed to carry all of this new oil to market would go through the regular environmental and permit processes and, after review and any necessary modifications for safety, some would be approved and built. That’s what had always happened.
That’s not what’s happening now. One of the largest oil-moving projects, the Keystone XL pipe to the United States Gulf Coast, is stuck in an indefinite limbo. It’s been there since President Barack Obama’s first term; it may still be there by the end of his second. Opposition to the pipe has become a lightning rod for the U.S. environmental movement, which is an important part of the Democratic Party’s voting and fundraising base. The Keystone debate in the U.S. is no longer about the specifics of the pipeline. All out of proportion to its actual environmental impact, it has become target No. 1 for climate-change opponents. What’s more, thanks to the shale boom, which is fast turning the U.S. into the world’s largest oil producer, the Americans don’t need the oil. And President Obama understandably doesn’t appear to want the hassle of standing up to part of his base. So in limbo Keystone remains.
Which leaves Canadian solutions. There are, for example, two major West-to-East pipeline proposals, which would see imported oil in Ontario and Quebec replaced with cheaper Canadian oil, and even the export of Alberta oil across the Atlantic.
The potential roadblocks? Ontario has ordered its energy board to hold public hearings on one of those proposals, TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $12-billion Energy East project. The company plans to convert part of an existing natural-gas pipe to carry crude to Ontario, and then aims to build a new pipeline through Quebec to New Brunswick. Ontario says its review will look at Energy’s East impact on public safety, greenhouse-gas emissions and – because this plan involves converting some pipe from gas to oil – the province’s energy supply.
The government of Quebec has similar ideas. It is holding hearings into Enbridge Inc.’s plan to reverse the flow in one of its existing pipelines, Line 9B. That pipe has long sent imported oil west from Montreal; Enbridge wants to send Western Canadian crude to Montreal. Quebec’s environment minister says that the purpose of the hearings is to draw up a list of conditions that would satisfy the province, and which Quebec City would then demand that Ottawa impose upon Enbridge as a condition of approval.
As for the Alberta-to-the-Pacific pipeline proposals, those too have hit hurdles. Some of which have been provincial. Until recently, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was acting as if she had the ability to block pipelines, and demand some kind of payment from Alberta for any pipe carrying Alberta oil that crossed her province. A recent agreement with her neighbouring premier, Alison Redford, takes the make-Alberta-pay strategy off the table. But B.C. still appears to believe that it is entitled to some sort of special compensation if pipelines are built through the province.
It’s understandable that the premiers of provinces through which oil may pass want a piece of the action. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not how the Constitution works. If you are opposed to a pipeline for environmental reasons, your first call should be to the federal government – because Ottawa gets to make the call on what gets built, where and when. There are some things in the Canadian Constitution that are clearly in provincial jurisdiction, some things that are shared and some things that are federal. Pipelines fall largely into that last category.
Yes, the Harper government has at times handled this file with an extraordinary clumsiness. When the Northern Gateway project through B.C. was first proposed, the federal government appeared to be so engaged in backing the plan that many people worried, not unreasonably, that Ottawa had moved from being the regulator of a private pipeline proposal to its chief cheerleader. The process may not have been stacked in the pipe’s favour, but the enthusiasm of the federal support left a bad impression. And that, rather than diminishing opposition to the project, appears to have stoked it.
Those mistakes matter because this issue is federal. It has to be. Canada is one country. There will sometimes be pipeline plans that deserve to be halted, or have changes ordered to the route or the design. It has happened before. That’s why we have a review process: not every proposal is supposed to be approved as-is. But those decisions, and that process, must be federal.