The results of British Columbia’s provincial election are still being calculated and while it is unclear who will win, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will lose.
Politicians in Alberta have, for years, tried to persuade leaders next door to support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, a private $7.4-billion effort that would increase the amount of bitumen shipped off the West Coast. Ms. Notley implemented a carbon tax to woo those weary of Alberta’s perceived lack of commitment to the environment. Kinder Morgan Inc., the American company behind the pipeline, pledged to pay B.C. up to $1-billion over 20 years in exchange for support. B.C. demanded pipeline and tanker safety upgrades. Eventually, Alberta got what it wanted: a blessing from B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
But that was before B.C. voters went to the ballot box this week. Ms. Clark’s Liberal Party came out on top, but is one seat shy of a majority.
The Liberals bettered the New Democratic Party by just two seats, giving the BC Green Party power that is out of proportion to its three seats. The preliminary results mean promises – particularly around Trans Mountain – are all up for negotiation. The pipeline will be a chip to trade rather than a policy to consider for B.C. politicians.
Ms. Notley will not be part of those discussions; Alberta’s recent progress in wooing its neighbour means little. Ms. Notley, experts argue, should put more effort into lobbying Ottawa to exert its authority over infrastructure projects such as pipelines and international trade agreements, but that means persuading Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to risk seats in B.C. Put it all together and Alberta has a slim chance of influencing energy policy in B.C. after voters there tilted further to the left.
“It is very hard when the government next door is engaged in an endless game of chicken with the opposition,” said David Taras, a political expert at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. To stay in power, Ms. Clark must play nice with her rivals.
John Horgan heads B.C.’s NDP and Andrew Weaver leads the Greens. Both leaders campaigned against Trans Mountain’s expansion plans. Ms. Notley and Mr. Horgan may both wear orange, but this does not mean Alberta’s Premier can bend NDP ears in B.C.
She warned Alberta NDPers they would not be welcome at home if they supported candidates opposed to Trans Mountain. But even if Ms. Notley is able to warm to Mr. Horgan, she then risks alienating BC Liberal allies for cozing up to their opposition. On the flip side, she cannot slam the provincial NDP because they could win the next election should a precarious government crumble.
“This is not going to be ‘Meet you in the parking lot and bring the weapon of your choice,’” Mr. Taras said.
Alberta and B.C.’s differences extend beyond the Trans Mountain project.
Ms. Clark, during the campaign, requested Ottawa ban thermal-coal exports out of B.C. ports, retaliating against U.S. softwood-lumber duties. If the federal government did not take action, Ms. Clark said she would impose a $70-per-tonne carbon tax on thermal-coal exports. This trade policy would extend to Alberta’s thermal-coal industry. Landlocked Alberta produces two million tonnes of thermal coal a year and most of it goes through B.C. ports.
Alberta would be better off spending more time pressing Ottawa to exercise its power over major infrastructure projects and trade deals than lobbying officials in Victoria, experts argue.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, speaking in Calgary Thursday, said the federal government’s support for Trans Mountain has not wavered.
“I’m reinforcing that right now with you,” he told reporters.
Negotiating strategies, however, may shift later this month. Ms. Clark’s minority government needs support from opposition legislators, unless the final results of the election swing in her favour. Roughly 180,000 absentee ballots will not be counted until May 22-24 and recounts are in the works. The NDP won in Courtenay-Comox by nine votes and secured Maple Ridge-Mission by 120 votes. The Liberals grabbed Coquitlam-Burke Mountain by 170 votes.
“When we know the final results of the British Columbia election, we will be very interested in sitting down with the representatives from the government, to talk about a whole range of issues,” Mr. Carr said.
Brian Lee Crowley, the managing director at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the federal government is failing Alberta.
“We conceptualize this wrongly when we think this is Rachel Notley’s problem,” he said. Confederation was designed, he said, in part to prevent provinces from blocking national infrastructure projects and so premiers could not “extort benefits” from each other. “Alberta is having this problem not because B.C. doesn’t want to go along,” Mr. Crowley said. “The reason that Alberta is having this problem is because Ottawa won’t enforce the rules.”
But if the Prime Minster stands up to B.C. over the divisive pipeline, his own government could fall. “I’m very much afraid that Ottawa will sacrifice the interest of Alberta and the interest of the rules for short-term political advantage,” Mr. Crowley said.
The federal Liberals control 17 of B.C.’s 42 ridings.
Meanwhile, the possibility of a tax on thermal-coal exports and another layer of uncertainty regarding the Trans Mountain project threaten the usefulness of Ms. Notley’s signature policy package: Alberta’s carbon taxes. The legislation, according to Alberta’s NDP, is necessary to secure outside support for projects such as Trans Mountain.
“If your pipeline goes away or again becomes mired down or bogged down in constant difficulty, then that makes that gamble or that claim look much less credible,” John Soroski, said a political-science professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University. “Essentially it means it didn’t payoff.”
With reports from Kelly CrydermanReport Typo/Error