The afternoon before the B.C. government announced its latest effort to block Kinder Morgan's proposed oil pipeline expansion, senior officials in the public service provided an advance briefing to their Alberta counterparts as a courtesy. It wasn't until the announcement was publicly released, on Jan. 30, that explosions went off inside Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's cabinet room.
Alberta was primed to expect the B.C. government to announce a review of oil-spill issues including response times, regional planning and possible compensation in the event of a spill.
But it wasn't until Ms. Notley's cabinet meeting was under way on the 30th that it became clear that British Columbia wanted to impose a temporary ban on the increase of oil exports while those other issues are studied. Whatever goodwill remained between the two governments instantly evaporated.
Senior sources within both governments spoke to The Globe and Mail about the events around the B.C. policy that has erupted into a trade war between the neighbouring provinces. They spoke on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the internal events.
Alberta concluded that their neighbours had moved the goalposts, and the cabinet swiftly promised retaliation. Ms. Notley subsequently called an emergency meeting of cabinet to plan countermeasures. Talks on the expansion of electricity sales were formally ended, and her province's ban on B.C. wine soon followed. On Friday, Ms. Notley appointed a task force to help her government keep up the pressure. "This is B.C. trying to usurp the authority of the federal government and undermine the basis of our Confederation," she said.
Relations between the two provinces haven't been this frosty since the height of tensions between Alison Redford and Christy Clark in 2012, when those two premiers sparred over a different pipeline proposal, the now-dead Northern Gateway project.
Today, the political landscape is different. Both Alberta and B.C. have NDP governments. They share a progressive agenda, and there are – now strained – friendships that connect political staff, cabinet ministers and the two premiers themselves. Now, their respective chiefs of staff are still speaking, but only just. Alberta gave B.C. no advance notice of their trade retaliation plans.
Premier John Horgan last week appeared taken aback at Alberta's heated response, maintaining that he is merely consulting and that his province has done nothing to provoke hostilities between two friendly neighbours.
There has been no secret that the Kinder Morgan pipeline would be a challenge for Ms. Notley and Mr. Horgan. In the spring of 2017, when Mr. Horgan's team prepared for a tough election campaign, the Alberta Premier barred her political staff from taking a leave from work to help the BC New Democrats – an unusual measure, as the NDP family routinely shares campaign workers across the country.
Ms. Notley, who faces her own challenging election campaign in the spring of 2019, desperately wants shovels in the ground for the pipeline that will break her province free of its dependence on the U.S. market for its energy products.
She has risked a tradeoff, promising Albertans they can meet Ottawa's demand for climate-action commitments because they will get their pipeline in exchange. Now, Ms. Notley is pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to square off against B.C. on the pipeline.
The scrap between the two premiers has now put the federal government in a tough spot, where Mr. Trudeau faces a backlash in either province, depending on how he handles this dispute. He has made a promise to Albertans that he'll see their pipeline built, but imposing a solution on B.C. won't help his 18 MPs in the province.
Mr. Horgan tried to walk back the conflict last week, insisting his government has made no decisions and is simply consulting with the public. Privately, his officials are pointing to an exit ramp for the federal government. Just in December, Ottawa announced millions of dollars in funding for spill research "so that we can better understand how oil behaves and degrades in different conditions, including cold water." If the federal government doesn't have those answers yet, why would it be unreasonable for B.C. to want answers before the pipeline expansion goes ahead?
Mr. Trudeau has been instructed by Ms. Notley that he must act to deny B.C.'s attempt to restrict bitumen transport through an interprovincial pipeline. Mr. Horgan is trying to offer a less confrontational option: Examine the science, and then take the time to fill any gaps that are found in Canada's oil-spill response regime.
To date, Mr. Trudeau has expended little political capital in British Columbia defending his decision to approve the Kinder Morgan expansion project. His latest public foray on the coast, though, was disrupted by angry protesters that showed once again that opposition to his pipeline has not eased. It was his call to bargain a pipeline for a climate-action deal in Alberta. And the next move in this interprovincial war is entirely his.