Early in 2018 Canada awoke to the strange spectacle of a “war” between its two most westerly provinces, both led by New Democratic governments.

The alleged casus belli was not quite up to the standard set by the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861. It was a press release from the British Columbia government that mentioned that it was considering restricting the increased inflow of Alberta diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the projected tripling of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain (TM) pipeline while B.C. carried out an appropriate review of the environmental risk posed mainly by ocean spills.

Enter Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Declaring the B.C. statement a totally unacceptable threat to Canada’s national interests, she imposed an almost certainly illegal ban on imports of B.C. wine into her province, adding that she was also calling off talks over B.C. hydroelectric exports to Alberta, and warned about other, worse sanctions to come if British Columbia did not capitulate.

She assumed a commanding position in the air war. The national media by and large accepted Alberta’s interpretation that British Columbia was unconstitutionally undermining the national interest, that the approval process was entirely adequate and complete, and that any further resistance in B.C. amounted to defiance of lawful authority. Notley never ceased noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had approved TM and she demanded that the full panoply of federal powers be deployed against the B.C. rebellion. She also threatened the clearly unconstitutional approach of cutting off Alberta oil from B.C. customers, discriminatory treatment explicitly outlawed in resource amendments agreed to when the BNA Act was repatriated in the 1980s.

B.C. Premier John Horgan opted for a lawful process, referring the proposed regulations to the highest court in British Columbia for a ruling on the province’s constitutional jurisdiction. Notley, in full triumphalist mode, then declared victory and rescinded her wine ban. Media observers, even in B.C., tended to agree that in the mano a mano confrontation with Notley, “Horgan blinked.” Hardly – this was merely a temporary ceasefire.

Apart from the B.C. referral, various provincially backed legal challenges to the pipeline from First Nations and environmental groups are in process. More immediately, the first waves of public protest against initial work on the expanded pipeline in Burnaby began, and soon civil disobedience was the order of the day. Green Party leader Elizabeth May and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart were among many arrested. When B.C. First Nations chiefs appeared on the line, Kinder Morgan, fearing a PR disaster, shut down for the day rather than call police to drag off Indigenous leaders.

Then a bombshell. Kinder Morgan announced it was suspending operations on the project, citing opposition and its responsibility to its investors, giving the B.C. government until the end of May to back down or see the pipeline come to a definitive halt. Since the B.C. NDP had campaigned against the project in 2017, there is no incentive for a turnaround now. In fact, at this point Horgan looks much more like a winner than Notley.

In Alberta, peak oil hysteria reigns supreme. Notley has even threatened that Alberta might take over Kinder Morgan (socialism in one petro-state?). More bizarrely, arch-conservative Opposition Leader Jason Kenney appeared to cheerlead such a multibillion-dollar fiscal folly. But mainly, Albertans from Big Oil to the NDP to the united Right were all demanding that Big Brother Ottawa come to their and the pipeline’s rescue. Big Brother looked very much as if he would like to be somewhere – anywhere – else. National NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, caught between two warring NDP provincial governments, was desperately looking for his Star Trek comm device to call Scotty to beam him up.

Four myths

It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. Already heavily encrusted with mythology, the Alberta-B.C. war is no exception.

Myth 1: Completion of TM is necessary for the success of the national climate plan promised by the federal Liberals to fulfill Canada’s carbon reduction goals set by the Paris climate accord.

On the face of it, this is a bizarre idea. Canada has already been falling behind its Paris targets, just as it previously missed its Kyoto targets. The main culprit has been the Alberta oil sands, among the “dirtiest” sources of oil in the world. The TM expansion involves a tripling of the pipeline’s capacity and a big increase in export of oil sands bitumen. Despite offsets elsewhere, there is simply no math, however contorted by politics, that can credibly demonstrate that TM’s increased oil sands capacity would not sink Canada’s adherence to Paris. You can’t reduce emissions by increasing them.

Trudeau has explained federal support in a more realistic, and revealing, way. It’s a political deal, he admits, a “tradeoff” in which Notley’s backing for his climate plan was made contingent on his supporting TM. Behind this is a simple reality of Alberta politics. To have any dim hope of survival, an NDP premier must show that she can achieve what previous Conservative premiers and Albertan Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not achieved: completing a pipeline to the Pacific coast. According to most observers, Notley does not have a snowball’s chance in tar sands hell of getting back into office against a now United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney. Even if TM were completed, Kenney as Premier would become the leading scourge of a national climate plan centred on carbon pricing, so what value would the Trudeau-Notley pact have then?

By backing TM, Trudeau is also undermining the laudable efforts of his government to reset the relationship with First Nations on a more equitable basis. The constitutional duty to secure the “free, prior and informed consent” of the First Nations whose lands and livelihoods will be massively impacted by TM has not been met. The result is a series of legal actions and, further down the road, the spectre of Oka-like blockades and confrontations.

Myth 2: Resistance to pipeline projects is the reason why the American export price for oil is so much higher than the price paid for Alberta imports into the United States; building pipeline capacity would eliminate this deep discount and make oil sands exports competitive.

While transportation bottlenecks do contribute to the discount, more can be attributed to the fact that we export crude bitumen that has to be refined, at considerable cost, before being re-exported by the Americans. That part of the discount will not disappear with more pipelines, and Keystone XL now looks like a sure thing with the backing of the Trump administration, reducing the need for TM. Besides, the same discount will apply with any Asian buyers of crude, with the additional cost of ocean transport added on.

The inconvenient truth is that Alberta oil is among the most expensive in the world. Climate change concerns, taken seriously by governments everywhere but in Washington, are encouraging alternative energy production, forcing a long-term decline in the global price of carbon fuels. China, the major Asian export market for oil and the world’s biggest automobile market, has a plan to phase out all vehicles powered by fossil fuels on Chinese roads. Oil sands fossil fuel may end up literally as a fossil – and TM as a white elephant.

In fact, this is very likely the real reason behind Kinder Morgan’s folding its hand. It may well have arrived at the conclusion that its business plan for the pipeline was founded on false assumptions. Blaming the B.C. government is the safest way for it to ease itself off the hook and get out of town with its wallet intact.

Myth 3: The review process for TM fully considered all aspects of the project, including environmental risks, and the decision of the National Energy Board should have closed debate.

The crux of British Columbia’s concern is that the approval process was deeply flawed, especially with regard to assessment of the environmental risk of ocean spills from supertankers. The National Energy Board’s terms of reference permitted only a narrow set of criteria to be assessed, and its track record is one of rubberstamping Big Oil projects. The Trudeau government has since announced that it will scrap the NEB and establish a new, more comprehensive review body, tacitly admitting the shortcomings of the process that approved TM.

The NEB dealt with the ocean spill issue – always the most serious environmental risk factor – by accepting at face value Kinder Morgan–sponsored laboratory-based research claiming that dilbit would float rather than sink, permitting relatively easy cleanup. Highly qualified scientists demurred, citing the limitations of the artificial test conditions. B.C. is relying more on a 461-page 2015 report by the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on the Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments, which pointedly concluded that the heavier and cruder the oil (dilbit being the heaviest), the less is known about how to respond effectively to spills – and the more field trials under real weather conditions are needed. The Pacific northwest is notoriously vulnerable to the threat of offshore earthquakes and tsunamis, and the beautiful but fragile coastal ecosystem is delicately balanced. Pending firm and convincing scientific evidence of acceptable risk, throwing open the seas to supertankers loaded with dilbit would be the height of environmental irresponsibility.

Myth 4: The federal government has at its disposal the “nuclear option” – the declaratory power – that could quickly shut down B.C. resistance.

It’s true that section 92 (10) (c) of the BNA Act allows Parliament to declare local works “although wholly situate within the province … to be for the general advantage of Canada or for the advantage of two or more of the provinces.” But constitutional power is not always political power: in political practice the declaratory power is a dead letter. Invoking it against B.C. on behalf of Alberta would effectively blow up more than half a century of federal-provincial diplomacy.

It has not escaped the attention of British Columbians that, in the face of Quebec protests, the federal government has axed the Energy East project that would have brought oil sands bitumen to Atlantic tidewater. Were the feds to invoke the nuclear option to force TM on B.C., the political price in the province for the Trudeau Liberals would be prohibitive.

Even less persuasive are a few hysterical voices calling for Ottawa to invoke the Emergency Powers Act and send in the army to ram the pipeline through. Resistance on the ground has been strictly peaceful civil disobedience, posing no threat to public safety. It is interesting that even through pipeline supporters often invoke images of crazed protestors using violent ecoterrorist tactics, to this point it is the pro-pipeline people who keep calling for coercive force to be deployed (in the “national interest,” of course).

B.C.’s realism

Alberta, Ottawa and Big Oil are living in an enchanted world in which economic myths rule, without environmental consequences. B.C. is standing up for realism, for its First Nations and for the planet. It is fighting its war by strictly legal means. If it can keep going that way successfully, we will all be the better for it in the end.