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Federal court ruling would be enough to clear way for Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Notley says

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks in Edmonton on Feb. 22, 2018.

If the Federal Court of Appeal rules in favour of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in a verdict expected soon, Alberta can declare victory on the contentious project, Premier Rachel Notley says.

Conversely, she said the death of the project would be a monumental setback to the federal government’s already embattled national climate plan, and further delay her provincial government’s plan to return to fiscal balance, already years away.

“This is the single biggest thing people are waiting for,” Ms. Notley said this week of the consolidated lawsuit that the federal court is hearing. “It’s what investors are waiting for, it’s what Ottawa is waiting for, it’s what Kinder Morgan is waiting for. I think if the court supports the [National Energy Board] process, then I think it opens the door for the federal government to bring all of its resources to bear to get the job done.

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“Assuming we are successful, I think we can declare victory and get shovels in the ground.”

This is the first time that the Premier has signaled the point at which she’d be prepared to assert an Alberta triumph and state definitively that the project will get built, without delay. There have even been musings in her office about announcing the big news in a television address to the people of Alberta.

The joint case before the federal appeal court includes arguments against the pipeline from seven First Nations communities, several environmental organizations, and the B.C. cities of Vancouver and Burnaby. The province of British Columbia is an intervenor. The matter largely centres around the NEB hearing process and consultations held by project proponents with groups potentially affected by the project.

A decision in favour of the pipeline expansion is not likely to stop B.C. from going to court, as it says it intends, with a reference question concerning jurisdiction over oil traversing the province. However, Ms. Notley says a positive federal court result is likely to largely render moot anything B.C. is planning to do.

“They might find a court to listen to their case but it’s not a reason to delay the project,” Ms. Notley told The Globe and Mail in an interview in her legislative office. “I think [B.C.] hopes it flutters around the courts for a while and further delays things. But at a certain point it becomes an esoteric exercise.”

Opposition leader Jason Kenney said the federal court decision would not be the end of the story by a long shot. “I think the Premier’s attitude underscores the naiveté of Alberta’s NDP government on the pipeline issue,” the United Conservative Party leader said in an interview. “I think her expectation that one court decision will result in oil flowing is a triumph of hope over experience.”

Ms. Notley’s government tables its third full budget this week, and many are looking for a detailed plan to get back to balance. The province’s total debt has tripled under the NDP as Alberta struggled to deal with the fallout from a massive crash in the price of oil. While the debt stood at $11.5-billion when the NDP took power in 2015, it is now at $45-billion and growing. The government says it hopes to return to balance by 2023-24 but the Premier said that, without a pipeline expansion, it could take longer. It’s been the lack of any clear plan to balance the books that has led to two credit downgrades in the last couple of years.

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“I think without a pipeline it could slow us down by a year or so,” Ms. Notley said. “Maybe a year, year-and-a-half. You can still get there but it’s slower.”

Ms. Notley echoed concerns voiced recently by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna that the country’s pan-national climate agreement is in jeopardy, largely because of B.C.’s efforts to thwart the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others have said that federal support for the project was the price it had to pay to buy Alberta’s participation in a climate strategy, including a national price on carbon.

Now, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, as well as wanna-be premiers, Jason Kenney of Alberta and Doug Ford of Ontario, say they would fight any type of carbon tax. Ms. Notley conceded it’s a difficult issue, involving politicians with varying agendas and interests. But she also said that, if Alberta pulls out because of lack of progress on a pipeline, it could scupper the whole climate deal.

“We’re trying to thread a pretty small needle here,” the Premier said. “Alberta is a major player [in the climate plan] and I do think our willingness to travel down the path we are can make or break it – that’s why a pipeline is so important.”

But Ms. Notley didn’t dismiss the politics that are involved, which makes getting to a final agreement so difficult.

“As Premier of Alberta I’m walking a tight rope, ensuring the pretty ambitious work that we’re doing can be financed and balanced with the progress we need to see on the pipeline,” she said. “I think different premiers are also walking difficult lines and the Prime Minister, too. I think collectively we are all trying to make it work. And I remain confident it will.”

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