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Jatin Nathwani is a professor and Ontario research chair in public policy for sustainable energy at the University of Waterloo and executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE). Colin Andersen is a former Ontario deputy minister of finance, and chair of the Energy Council of Canada.

Neither a large dollop of self-righteous indignation wrapped around an environmental agenda nor vengeful retaliation through wine trade will get Alberta and British Columbia any closer to finding a common ground on the construction of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion. A tit-for-tat – my pristine environment versus your dirty dollars – does have the dubious merit of a strong uplift in the polls for respective politicians in their home jurisdictions, but it is utterly devoid of any long-term benefit for either Alberta or B.C. – or Canada's economic well-being.

There is a compelling need to create a white space for adult discussion and to lower the decibel levels of the rhetoric. This is best achieved by paying close attention to the relevant evidence and the facts to inform the quality of decisions. One simple observation that may appear to be counterintuitive but is true: Investment in Alberta's oil and gas sector has very large benefits for citizens of B.C. and Ontario. These benefits of investment in the oil and gas sector in Alberta are consequential and on a scale large enough not to be ignored.

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Rhetoric is entertaining, but numbers remain crucial to an informed debate. B.C. is the second- or third-largest beneficiary province, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI). If only Premier John Horgan can bring himself to highlight the benefits to B.C. government coffers – in the order of $9-billion – arising from investments in the oil and gas sector in Alberta, it would be a good start. Similarly, Ontario benefits to the tune of $11-billion. The positive impacts on national employment are also compelling: a total of one million direct jobs and additional indirect and induced jobs in the order of 2.1 million and 3.5 million, respectively. The obverse is also true: British Columbia, its people, its economy and its communities are second or third in terms of forgone benefit for whatever investment doesn't occur in Alberta.

Good citizens of B.C. may choose to ignore the positive direct economic benefits for themselves and instead focus on the potential risks and negative environmental attributes of transportation of oil through pipelines.

One has to respect this position. What it means is we would have to be quite rigorous in the assessment of the environmental risk and bring disciplined focus to measures for emergency preparedness and response in the event of a spill.

The robustness of the response capability must not be an afterthought; it must be integral to the safe operation of the pipeline, meeting the highest standards of conduct. Zero risk is, by and large, not achievable, but a productive conversation is possible on how best to address a small residual risk.

An absolute and unconditional rejection of any pipeline expansion because of environmental risk is disingenuous because it is not an honest appraisal of the current situation. Reflecting in the mirror, one would have to answer: How am I able to obtain my level of warmth and comfort delivered through existing oil and gas pipelines knowing it does not come in at zero risk? If the risk from oil pipelines that run down along the B.C. coast from Alaska is deemed acceptable – by and large – then why such a heightened sense of concern and intransigence over the expansion of capacity through a new pipeline?

There are other dimensions to this debate and in particular the concerns of Indigenous communities for protection along the rights-of-way of the pipeline. Again, the issues and challenges must be addressed through a coherent and respectful process that not only takes into full account the values of the community but through a more determined attempt that make these communities fully engaged partners as beneficiaries of this development. This would require commitment to continuing negotiation in good faith as long as exercise of a veto is not on the table.

At the end of the day, there is an economic calculus that spells "net benefit" to Canada. The Government of Canada owns the decision. The "net benefit to Canada test" should not be viewed strictly through the lens of an economic argument, although economics is an important part of the consideration.

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More important is the dialogue that draws into account a full consideration of all the social and environmental aspects with much weight given to a political process that enhances the civility of our discourse over difficult issues of national importance.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she’s talking to her Alberta and B.C. counterparts to help resolve an emerging trade war over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. McKenna says the project is definitely going ahead. The Canadian Press
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