As statements from politicians go, the one released by Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer in mid-December about Alberta’s oil woes was a doozy.
“Justin Trudeau has wanted to phase out Canada’s energy industry since day one,” Mr. Scheer said on Dec. 18, as Albertans demonstrated in support of the construction of a much-needed new crude-oil pipeline. “In his Canada, there is no oil and gas sector. He is ashamed of it and wants it gone.”
Real anger and worry have overtaken Alberta this year, as the oil industry has been plunged into a crisis that is largely the product of a decade’s worth of failed pipeline policy from Ottawa. But Mr. Scheer’s over-the-top conspiracy theorizing is unhelpful, not to mention inaccurate.
He is not alone in the overheated rhetoric department, though. A day later, Jack Mintz, the respected economist and fellow at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, raised the spectre of Alberta separation in a piece in the Financial Post.
Mr. Mintz wrote that arguments in favour of “Albexit,” as he coined it, are more justified than the United Kingdom’s case was for leaving the European Union. His words added fresh fuel on the resurgent flames of Western alienation ignited by the province’s ongoing slump.
Let’s all take a deep breath. By the low standards of the Brexit fiasco, literally every jurisdiction in the world has reason to separate from whatever larger body it happens to feel aggrieved by. Albertans benefit enormously from being part of Canada. The province only really has one complaint about Confederation: It takes too damn long to build a pipeline.
It’s a legitimate beef. But it’s not exactly the stuff of liberation movements. And it doesn’t necessarily have to remain so in the years to come. Plus, it’s very hard to see how the complications of cross-jurisdictional energy transportation would be lessened by turning provincial borders into international ones.
But it is easy to see why Albertans are so frustrated by the slow pace at which their biggest hope for relief, the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that carries oil from Edmonton to Vancouver, has been progressing.
That frustration turned to anger this year as a global glut of crude oil caused a drop in prices – a drop that is even sharper in Alberta because the lack of pipeline capacity means its crude must sell at a discount, compared with U.S. prices.
The international oil glut is not Ottawa’s fault. But the Trudeau Liberals quite literally own the Trans Mountain mess, having bought the existing pipeline last summer. With that purchase came all the blowback from a federal court decision stopping expansion on the grounds that some Indigenous peoples weren’t properly consulted, and that the National Energy Board failed to assess the impact of increased tanker traffic.
Ottawa has given the National Energy Board until Feb. 22, 2019, to complete the required marine assessment. It has avoided a firm deadline for consultations with Indigenous peoples, lest that be seen as violating Ottawa’s duty to consult in good faith.
Albertans consequently feel left in the dark about if and when pipeline construction will begin, and angry at Ottawa. A betting person would say the green light is likely to come some time in the summer – there is little doubt the Trudeau government will want this off its desk before next year’s election – but nothing can be soon enough at this point.
In the meantime, Ottawa has offered Alberta’s oil industry a $1.6-billion package of loans to help it through the slump. It can do more, too.
It could help Alberta pay for the additional rail cars needed to transport crude until new pipeline capacity comes online. It could also do a better job of regularly communicating its plans for getting Trans Mountain through this last round of review and consultation, while consistently demonstrating that building the pipeline is job No. 1. The failure to do so is hurting the Liberal government’s popularity, and the national interest.
At the same time, Albertans and their politicians need to be realistic. The rest of the country is not out to get Alberta. The Trudeau government does not have a secret plot to kill its own pipeline. Being a part of the Canadian federation can sometimes test a province’s patience, but that’s not a reason to indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories and overheated talk of separation.