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How to resolve the pipeline fight between Alberta and British Columbia

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Protesters opposed to expansion of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline in Vancouver last fall.

It sure looks as if we have a full-blown constitutional and national unity crisis brewing here in Western Canada over Kinder Morgan Inc.'s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project.

As is well known, the provincial governments of Alberta and British Columbia are deeply entrenched in positions for and against the $7.4-billion megaproject, the former in favour and the latter against.

While there's a certain amount of grandstanding on both sides, the underlying issues about the right of one province to export its products and protect its economy, and the right of another to protect its environment and its economy are very serious, and could have consequences for the country that go well beyond a boycott of British Columbia's excellent wines by the government of Alberta.

Hopefully we're now past the point at least where this just seems like a faintly ironic oddity because both governments happen to be of the NDP persuasion.

If people in Alberta imagine the overwhelming opposition to this pipeline in Metropolitan Vancouver and on Vancouver Island is just going to go away, or that this project, let alone others, can be shoved up the noses of these Coastal British Columbians without harmful consequences to the country, they must be smoking pre-legal pot from the Kootenays. The political consequences are real, by the way, regardless of the strength of Alberta’s constitutional case.

The same can be said for British Columbians who have persuaded themselves that Albertans can be convinced or forced to sacrifice their provincial economy for an economic and environmental vision a majority of citizens here are frankly skeptical about. This is true, by the way, whether or not we are in the process of transitioning to a worldwide low-carbon market.

So how can we complete this project, which an elite consensus in Alberta and Ottawa has now concluded is the only way for the province's and the country's economies to prosper, while ensuring Coastal British Columbians can trust that it doesn’t present a close to existential threat to the environmental health of their coast, and the planet?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Liberal who campaigned as a friend of the environment, has stated unequivocally that the project is necessary for the wellbeing of the national economy. He vowed that, "we're going to ensure that pipeline gets built."

How can he persuade British Columbians opposed to the pipeline to believe his corollary promise that "we're going to get our resources to market safely and securely"?

Additional important questions spring to mind:

Canadians have committed to reconciliation with First Nations. How is the push to complete this project without further consultation with them consistent with that promise?

If the waters of the Salish Sea are under grave threat, as many coastal British Columbians passionately believe, and the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline has never gone longer than four years without some kind of spill, how can anyone trust this company to protect the Canadian West Coast?

If we wait too long -- whether the cause of the delay is constitutional or not -- how can Albertans be confident the publicly traded U.S. company that owns the line won't just walk away from the project to protect its investors, an outcome widely and sincerely believed to be deeply harmful to our economy?

How can we square this circle?

Well, 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.

That's not a perfect plan. It certainly wouldn’t persuade the most bitter foes of the project.

But it would go a long way to reassure both British Columbians and Albertans, including Indigenous peoples, regardless of their points of view on the specifics of the project.

It would ensure meaningful financial and environmental accountability. It would protect good jobs, with fair wages, and adequate staffing to protect the environment along the way and on the coast.

It could 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.

It would restore to our national government partial influence over an essential industry it foolishly gave up when the Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney partly privatized Petro-Canada, a job that was completed by the Liberals under Paul Martin. It would make it possible to ensure our oil sands activities did not trash our climate commitments under the Paris Agreement and international climate change measures yet to come.

It would reassure Canadians outside Alberta this isn't just a boondoggle to enrich a few well placed, U.S. based corporate bosses.

It would ensure the environmental and economic wellbeing of two Canadian provinces and our West Coast weren’t left in the hands of a private Texas corporation with a shaky environmental record.

Nor would this deprive the private sector of its take. Private companies would still be needed to dig the trenches and weld the steel. But it would make it far more likely the project was properly built and run in the interests of all Canadians, which is what we keep being told this is all about.

Of course, we all know that even if there weren't a plausible argument that it's too late in the case of the Kinder Morgan project, this idea is just, if you’ll pardon the expression, a pipe dream. In the Canada of 2018, this sensible, national approach would never be considered for two seconds.

Just remember, though, that is the result of more than 30 years of neoliberal propaganda and corporate capture of our governments, not anything to do with the best way to run a pipeline, let alone a country.

Just a generation or two ago, this idea at least would have been on the table. The fact that it's no longer possible in Canada is a pity.

So fasten your seatbelts. And don't be fooled. This is not going to be as easy or free of consequences as you have been promised.

More than just a few bottles of wine are going to get broken.

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

Image: Flickr/William Chen

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