Historians take note: This is the week when two western premiers threatened to cut off oil to a third that wouldn’t recognize total federal jurisdiction over the flow of oil. One of them, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, insisted a Liberal prime minister named Trudeau should be doing more to assert federal influence over a recalcitrant province.
The historians who chronicled Pierre Trudeau’s long-hated National Energy Program would not have seen that coming, even if some of the emotions being expressed now feel similar. This time, western province is pitted against western province, with political shots fired over the fence.
British Columbia angered Alberta by threatening to ask a court if it can thwart the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Alberta responded by threatening to cut off the flow of oil, B.C. threatened to get an injunction, and Saskatchewan announced it would join in with its own legislation to turn off the taps.
It’s inter-provincial mayhem. But it’s not a constitutional crisis. The questions at play now are not about who has jurisdiction, but who looks like they are taking a loud, tough stand for their side. This latest spate of tit-for-tat threats can’t do much but make a bunch of lawyers rich.
Albertans, to be sure, are understandably frustrated that an approved pipeline is still being threatened by a potential B.C. legal challenge, particularly as so many see the project as key to solidifying a recovery from economic woes the province has suffered since oil prices fell in 2014.
B.C’s Environment Minister, George Heyman, has admitted that NDP government has known since it came to power last summer that stopping the Trans Mountain expansion (TMX) was beyond its jurisdiction, but it’s still asking a court what powers it might have. It’s a longshot, but B.C. Premier John Horgan promised to fight TMX, his government needs Green Party support to survive, and the court reference will make it look like he’s fighting.
That’s not a constitutional crisis. The courts will eventually settle B.C.’s case. It caused a panic only because pipeline promoter Kinder Morgan said that, amid all the other risks, it doesn’t want to shoulder that one – and it set a May 31 deadline for that risk to be lifted. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have already said they’ll take the only step in their power to meet the condition – backstopping the company with public money.
But this is politics, and that’s not enough. Ms. Notley had briefly threatened to ban B.C. wine, and given the opposition leader she faces, United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, she can’t go too far in proposing punishments for B.C.
Mr. Kenney has called on Ottawa to cut B.C. off transfer payments, and to halt federal funding of B.C. infrastructure projects. But no matter the impact, Mr. Horgan is not breaking any rules. The Prime Minister of Canada can’t cut off money for B.C. sewage plants because the Premier plans to ask a court what jurisdiction he might (but probably doesn’t) have.
That’s obviously frustrating for Alberta. It’s not surprising somebody thought of letting B.C. freeze in the dark. Ms. Notley, in a bid to look tough on B.C., put forward Bill 12 to cut off oil. Saskatchewan’s Mr. Moe learnt from predecessor Brad Wall that it’s popular to look like you’re standing up for resource jobs, so he’s going to follow suit.
But it’s not going to be more than a symbol. Such laws have to cut off all oil “exports” from a province, not just those to B.C. A ban would actually hurt Alberta’s oil industry. If Alberta went ahead, it would face a court challenge, and by the time it’s settled, Kinder Morgan’s May 31 deadline would probably have passed. Mr. Horgan would have every reason to hang on till then.
This isn’t, for all the ugliness, an epic battle over disputed powers: Mr. Horgan has made it clear he will accept the court ruling. Kinder Morgan’s deadline means the real question is whether the company will accept Alberta and Ottawa’s financial deal and proceed, letting the courts eventually decide. In the meantime, this is a political contest to look tough.