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The Trans Mountain pipeline should remain under direct public ownership

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi

If the Trans Mountain Pipeline is so essential to the economic wellbeing of Canada, and the price of Alberta bitumen is going to rise dramatically as a result of our ability to get that stuff to "tidewater," why the heck is the federal government, having paid a premium to buy the thing, in such a hurry to unload it?

I mean, we all know that nowadays all federal parties are lousy with neoliberals who unjustifiably disdain the ability of governments to do things better than profit-motivated private corporations -- despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Not only that, but many of us are so propagandized by the relentlessly peddled fantasies of market fundamentalism that the idea of a nation taking on a task of national importance makes us feel hinky.

Notwithstanding all that, Ottawa's new point man on the project, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, seems to be in an indecent hurry to dump the pipeline, for which we Canadians have just paid Texas-based Kinder-Morgan Inc. $4.5 billion.

If the former Edmonton city councillor, appointed to his new federal cabinet post by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month, succeeds with that objective, I'm sorry to have to advise you, we're all almost certainly going to take a bath, metaphorically speaking.

When government spokespeople say they have no interest in hanging onto the thing, even if it's the government that ends up spending the additional $7-billion plus to complete the expansion project, sharp corporate buyers are bound to smell the blood in the water.

So it's this writer's opinion that it is time for Sohi and his fellow Liberals to take a breath and leave the pipeline where it belongs, under direct public ownership, or at least as a Crown corporation, as befits a major national public works program of strategic importance to the national economy.

Those of you conditioned to assume this is crazy need to take a breath too. Back in February, when I first wrote that public ownership was the only way to square the circle of massive opposition to the project on the West Coast with the consensus in Edmonton and Ottawa that it must be built, even insiders within Alberta’s NDP government thought I was, if not completely nuts, certainly going over the top for rhetorical effect.

So they've told me. And yet here we are!

Nothing fundamental has changed since I wrote: "if an expanded pipeline capable of carrying diluted bitumen from north central Alberta to the West Coast is essential to the health of the national economy, and the survival of Alberta's, then the federal government should build it and run it."

I argued then that this move would, or at least could:

  • Reassure both British Columbians and Albertans, including Indigenous peoples, regardless of their points of view on the specifics of the project.
  • Ensure meaningful financial and environmental accountability, impossible with a commercial corporation.
  • Protect good jobs, with fair wages, and adequate staffing to protect the environment along the way and on the coast.
  • Holistically include environmental and coastal protections in the overall scope of the project without the temptation to cut safety corners to pad the bottom line.
  • Restore to our national government partial influence over an essential industry it lost when it foolishly privatized Petro-Canada.
  • Reassure Canadians outside Alberta that this isn't just a boondoggle to enrich a few well-placed corporate bosses in other countries.
  • Possibly even ensure our oil sands activities do not trash our climate commitments under the Paris Agreement and international climate change measures yet to come.

Plus, if those wonderful predictions about the "Asian premium" are true, it will make money for us all.

And without a doubt, handing the pipeline back to the private sector will re-energize the West Coast environmental movement to redouble its efforts to stop the pipeline.

That's because for-profit capitalists are simply not capable of putting the needs of Canadians and Canada's environment before short-term profit. It's a feature of capitalism, not (as they say) a bug.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

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