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Globe editorial: Alberta’s threatened oil embargo is no way to save a pipeline

Let’s be clear about who is in the wrong here: In its shameless effort to kill the legally approved Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, the British Columbia government is deliberately usurping both the authority of the federal government and the rule of law.

Worse, its tactics appear to be working. Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. announced Sunday it is suspending the project and will cancel it altogether if it doesn’t receive assurances by May 31 that there will be no more roadblocks to completion.

A sign warning of an underground petroleum pipeline in Burnaby, B.C. on Monday.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

It will be a disaster if the deadline isn’t met and B.C. succeeds in doing an end run around Ottawa’s constitutional right to approve energy projects that cross provincial borders. The federal government needs to act quickly. Cabinet held an emergency meeting on Tuesday but it is wisely not talking publicly about its next step, or about what it might do if Kinder Morgan kills the project.

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It will be a disaster if the deadline isn’t met and B.C. succeeds in doing an end run around Ottawa’s constitutional right to approve energy projects that cross provincial borders. The federal government needs to act quickly. Cabinet held an emergency meeting on Tuesday but it is wisely not talking publicly about its next step, or about what it might do if Kinder Morgan kills the project.

Others, though, are out for blood, and that’s neither helpful nor wise.

In a tit-for-tat move, Alberta’s NDP government is planning to table legislation next week that would allow it to cut oil flows to B.C. in a deliberate attempt to raise gasoline prices in the Lower Mainland.

Jason Kenney, the Alberta opposition leader, is meanwhile calling on Ottawa to withhold transfer payments to B.C., either as inducement to get it to respect the constitution, or as punishment if the project goes under.

It’s easy to understand the ire of Albertans whose livelihoods are being held hostage by B.C. – an anger exacerbated by B.C. Premier John Horgan’s smug indifference to the crisis his government has instigated.

But retaliatory threats do nothing to solve the problem. The reality is that Kinder Morgan controls the outcome. It will continue with the project if, and only if, it is convinced that the expensive, lengthy and onerous federal approval process it successfully went through will win out.

It must also be reassured that it won’t be stuck with an enormous increase in costs if the effort to end the stalemate goes past the May 31 deadline, as it likely will.

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This will require Ottawa to demonstrate that it has a clear plan for enforcing its jurisdiction, either through the courts or through negotiations with the B.C. government aimed at getting it to back off its stalling tactics.

It will probably also require an offer of federal financial support, in the form of funding for the project or a national equity position in the company. (Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has equally speculated about her province buying into the pipeline project.)

Above all, Kinder Morgan – and a lot of other companies that are watching closely – want reassurance that Canada is a safe country to invest in; one where the approval process for major resource projects is respected and enforceable.

The sight of Alberta threatening to cut the flow of oil to B.C. is hardly reassuring. If anything, it is more evidence that Canada’s provincial premiers will upend any and all laws in order to score political points.

There is, in fact, good reason to believe that Alberta would be violating Canadian law if it choked off the flow of oil to B.C. solely as a punitive measure designed to raise the price of a litre of gas in Vancouver.

It is also baffling that the Premier of Alberta would rush to the aid of the beleaguered oil industry by passing a law that would presumably result in less crude and gasoline flowing out of the province.

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If Premier Notley and Mr. Kenney want to help the pipeline get built, they should put aside their thirst for retribution and instead sell the merits of the pipeline expansion.

There is polling evidence to suggest that the majority of British Columbians are in favour of the $7.4-billion project. A wise course would be to keep them onside by reminding them of the numerous compromises Kinder Morgan has made in order to better protect the environment.

It would also be helpful to point out that the more than 40 Indigenous communities in B.C. that have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan will lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in payments if the pipeline is canceled.

That’s a better approach than threatening an oil embargo. What companies like Kinder Morgan want to see is proof that cooler heads can prevail when resource development and the environment rub up against each other in Canada. From the evidence to date, that isn’t the case at all.

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