Political intrigue is dragging into the late rounds in the provinces over Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
By now it's mostly shadow boxing, and it obscures what the fate of the project will be.
In British Columbia, the new government appears to be ever-so-gradually softening its stand against the $7.4-billion proposal. In Alberta, a well-known conservative politician, who has yet to be elected to a seat, is threatening retaliation against B.C. if it gets scrubbed.
Ian Anderson, Kinder Morgan Canada's chief executive officer, has confidently predicted work on the pipeline will start on schedule next month, though the initial tasks don't include actual pipeline construction. That would start a few months later.
He pretty much has to exude confidence, given his personal stake in the outcome, and serious hurdles remain – especially a high-stakes legal case.
But if all goes according to plan, Mr. Anderson says, the expanded pipeline to Burnaby, B.C., from Alberta will start up in 2019, tripling the volume of Alberta crude available for export to Asian markets. The proposal has federal and provincial approvals, subject to a host of conditions.
The expansion is seen as a righteous quest for the oil industry and Alberta government, which has pledged to fight in its favour, in both political and legal arenas.
A minority New Democratic Party government in B.C., meanwhile, vowed early to use every tool in its toolbox to block it. In the election campaign, it said the project was bad for B.C. and its coast.
Maybe it didn't have all the tools it initially thought it had, because the narrative has softened since Premier John Horgan's government, propped up by the BC Green Party, was sworn in last month.
An early indication was in mandate letters for the new cabinet members, including Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman. Yes, there's the toolbox analogy, but instead of blocking, the directive is to "defend B.C.'s interests in the face of the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the threat of a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast."
This is a laudable task. But the wording leaves much to interpretation as to what the desired result is. One veteran energy industry player says recent comments from officials suggest an important shift away from the idea of building the barricades against Alberta's fossil-fuel onslaught.
Indeed, B.C. Attorney-General David Eby has said the province won't risk lawsuits by artificially delaying permits for various tasks along the route, which was seen as one of the proverbial tools in the box. Instead, the government can ensure its provincial permits force construction to be done in a way that minimizes spills, protects the environment and ensures appropriate cleanup, he said.
"Monitoring can still have a lot of teeth to it, but this is a big change," said Dan Tsubouchi, chief market strategist at Calgary-based Stream Asset Financial Management.
Mr. Tsubouchi points out that Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver remains set against the expansion. So now the question in B.C. may well turn to whether either leader judges this to be a flashpoint that would threaten the fledgling coalition and survival of the minority government.
Then there's Jason Kenney. The leadership hopeful for Alberta's newly formed United Conservative Party threatened a trade war with B.C. should it put roadblocks in the way of the project – assuming, of course, he gets to be premier. "We'll find whatever points of leverage are necessary to demonstrate that a province cannot do that," he told The Globe and Mail's Laura Stone.
The reason for the bluster, more than to take shots at B.C., is to rally his own base, who believe the current premier, Rachel Notley, is at heart anti-energy industry and derelict in her duty to stand up to perceived foes.
In fact, the NDP Premier has jumped into the ring. Her government gained intervenor status in an amalgamated series of legal challenges against the pipeline, launched by First Nations, environmental groups and municipal governments. The case goes to federal court in October.
This, and not provincial politics, will most likely be the main event that actually decides in the end whether the project proceeds.