Skip to main content

You’ll forgive the B.C. government if it’s somewhat baffled as to what it did to set off the constitutional crisis it’s being accused of igniting.

When we last left the Great Pipeline Debate, Alberta had just dropped its wine boycott after B.C. blinked in its threat to restrict the flow of bitumen through the pipeline Kinder Morgan is trying to build. Instead, Premier John Horgan said he would go to court to seek an opinion on whether the province had the right to control what type of product flowed through a pipeline that traversed its property.

It was a tactic Alberta and others laughed off. No courts would give B.C. authority over something that was clearly federal jurisdiction. It was a waste of time. But if B.C.’s NDP government needed to do this for political reasons, well, it could fill its boots.

And there things stood until Sunday, when the head of Kinder Morgan in Houston announced the company was setting a drop dead date of May 31 to have all issues around the pipeline resolved. If not, it was walking away.

Suddenly, everyone was lighting their hair on fire again. B.C. had to obey the rule of law! B.C. had to respect the transnational rights of Ottawa in matters of national interest! B.C. had to stop furthering the national economic crisis it was precipitating!

Well, well then.

I’m a bit confused about what B.C. did precisely to ignite this fresh wave of anger directed its way. It had earlier decided to seek the court’s opinion on a question of jurisdiction – which is not unlawful. Mr. Horgan has constituents he has a duty to look out for, just as Premier Rachel Notley in Alberta does.

There, it’s become de rigeur to evoke the name of the late great Peter Lougheed, who forged his iconic reputation by doing precisely what Mr. Horgan is doing now – standing up for the interests of his province. As much as it might irritate the hell out of the good people of Alberta, there are many people in B.C. who do not want this pipeline built. Mr. Horgan has an obligation to fight on their behalf.

Meantime, he has done nothing, as far as I can tell, to stop early construction of the project. Kinder Morgan has been submitting the necessary permits to various agencies and ministries in B.C. and they have been getting approved. More than 200 so far have been green-lighted and another 386 are waiting to be reviewed. This process takes time.

Even Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson said he has seen no evidence of political interference in the permitting process. Meantime, B.C. has been in court effectively defending the pipeline in an action launched by the Squamish Nation, which contends the permitting approval process established by the previous Liberal government was flawed.

So, people need to be careful before they accuse B.C. of thwarting the rule of law.

That said, Kinder Morgan’s deadline has increased pressure on the project. And it has set the bar exceedingly high in terms of the unobstructed path it needs to carry on – a threshold many believe may be impossible to obtain. This could give the company a project out, if it’s looking for one.

And that is certainly one theory being held in some provincial and federal government circles at the moment.

Still, B.C. is under enormous pressure now to drop its decision to seek an opinion on jurisdiction. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is getting massacred on this issue in the court of public opinion. He needs a win, badly. Ottawa is expected to announce some fairly serious sanctions this week, ones B.C. will face unless it plays ball. That means Mr. Horgan needs a face-saving “off-ramp” for its planned court gambit. This may be provided by the Federal Court of Appeal, which is hearing a combined group of lawsuits aimed at stopping the project.

This key ruling is expected to come down soon. If it’s unequivocal in its findings that the pipeline expansion should be allowed to proceed and unequivocal on the question of jurisdiction, then B.C. could honor that and say it’s putting its legal quest on hold or abandoning it altogether. It needs a credible exit from its threatened court move unless it wants to face serious economic repercussions from Ottawa.

Then, all Kinder Morgan – or the Alberta government, if it takes over the project – will have to worry about are the protesters. And it could take a while to throw all of them in jail.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe