Should Christy Clark find herself sitting across from Danielle Smith one day, talking about pipelines, she's likely to find the conversation no less frosty than it's been with current Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
Ms. Smith's Wildrose Party appeared on its way to power in last year's election until a couple of "bozo eruptions" by her candidates in the campaign's home stretch scared voters off. The charismatic leader of Alberta's Loyal Opposition has vowed that her party will be better prepared next time around.
With Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives in a heap of trouble with the public at the moment, it's not improbable that the Wildrose leader could be across the table from Ms. Clark one day. The transportation of oil between the two provinces is not an issue that will be solved soon. Any negotiations will likely be protracted.
For her part, Ms. Smith doesn't have an issue with most of British Columbia's demands. Of the five conditions B.C. has placed on any prospective pipeline projects, four – the ones dealing with environmental protection and First Nations involvement – make sense, she says. The one that rankles is the fifth: the requirement for financial compensation in exchange for the environmental risks assumed by B.C.
It's Ms. Smith's contention that this fifth condition violates the essence of our Constitution and amounts to an export tax on products coming out of Alberta. That's not how Canada operates, she says.
"Our country works on the basis that we understand we have a number of landlocked provinces and there is a quid pro quo: the free movement of products across our borders so everybody benefits," Ms. Smith told me in an interview in her office.
The Wildrose leader doesn't like where the pipeline discussion is leading. If it's bitumen the B.C. Premier wants money for today, what will it be tomorrow? If B.C. is going to start taxing Alberta products entering its province, maybe Alberta will do the same with the gas that originates in B.C. and is carried across Alberta. Ms. Smith said she can't imagine a Wildrose government ever demanding a share of the stumpage fees that the B.C. government gets as compensation for logs transported across Alberta en route to other markets.
"I don't think that's healthy or what this country is about," said Ms. Smith.
Her biggest concern is the precedent such a condition would set.
If Alberta cut a cheque to B.C. to get the Northern Gateway project approved, then Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Ontario and other provinces to the east would almost certainly ask for the same benefit for any oil travelling across their provinces by pipeline. Maybe some U.S. states that accommodate Alberta oil would, too. Where would it end?
This doesn't mean that Ms. Smith doesn't see pathways to resolve the current impasse. Possible solutions include B.C. taking an ownership stake in the pipeline, asking the National Energy Board to allow a per-barrel toll on the oil going through the pipeline or applying a loading tax at the pipeline's terminus. She also suggested that an agreement could be worked out between B.C. and Ottawa similar to the one negotiated with the Atlantic provinces around offshore development.
In each case, the costs are borne by others, not Alberta.
Some of these ideas have been floated before, of course. And there is certainly some merit to each. At this point, the problem is figuring out who takes the lead in trying to end the stalemate.
Ms. Clark and Ms. Redford are meeting Friday in Kelowna, B.C., to discuss pipelines and other issues. Officials from both provinces have warned that there isn't expected to be much news from the hour-long confab. But someone, perhaps the federal government, will eventually have to get others around the table if there is any hope of resolving this matter. This group would include the pipeline companies and oil producers who are likely to be the ones reaching for their wallets to satisfy B.C.'s cash needs.
"I think there are ways to address the economic piece," Ms. Smith said. "But I'd prefer to look for solutions that are in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution."
A comment that could one day provide the chilly starting point for a discussion about pipelines between Ms. Smith and Ms. Clark.