Not that long ago, British Columbia was what Canadians refer to as a “have-not province” — that is, it was a net recipient of transfers from other provinces under the country’s equalization formula. It wasn’t a lot compared to what some other provinces received: a half billion dollars a year in 2006/2007, compared to nearly $5 billion for Quebec. But it was something, and it was Alberta that shouldered the heaviest equalization bill to bail out its “have-not” sisters out. Not once in those tougher fiscal years did B.C. refuse the extra help.
Things have changed in B.C. It is, thankfully, today a much healthier province, economically. But with her province’s good fortune, B.C. premier Christy Clark seems to have overlooked the spirit of interprovincial cooperation underpinning the Canadian federation. Alberta wants to bring its oil to overseas markets and requires pipelines that run to tanker ports on B.C.’s coast. Clark, however, is suddenly demanding that Alberta cough up its energy royalties before she’ll let the oil pass.
Yet even Clark herself acknowledges that the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is “good for Canada.” And it is: the pipeline is expected to pump, in addition to ethical oil headed for markets stuck relying on conflict oil, an additional $81 billion in tax revenue into the Canadian economy. Plus, as federal natural resources minister Joe Oliver has noted, opening markets beyond the U.S. to Canada’s ethical oil will create here at home “hundreds of thousands of new jobs” and “trillions [of dollars] in economic benefits.” All provinces will benefit handsomely from the successful development of the oil sands industry — in jobs and tax transfers — as the Canadian Energy Research Institute has exhaustively detailed; British Columbia will help us all by helping the oil sands — or at the very least not blocking the way.
It’s no secret that Christy Clark’s Liberal party is struggling to connect with voters in advance of an election next May. But playing a dangerous political game with a project of such profound national importance is a seriously misguided maneuver. Especially since virtually all of Clark’s demands are already in the process of being addressed.
Clark has insisted that for B.C. to agree to allow Northern Gateway into its province, it must pass the National Energy Board’s environmental review. But getting a passing grade from Ottawa has always been a precondition for the pipeline proposal to proceed. She wants Enbridge, the company behind the proposal, to prepare “world-leading” response plans to any spills that might occur on land or sea. Already pipelines are the safest form of oil transportation available, anywhere, but Enbridge is also preparing these response plans, as part of its application to the N.E.B.
Another of Clark’s demands is that Enbridge address the rights claims of First Nations and ensure they, too, benefit from the pipeline project. But again, she’s insisting on something well underway. As it happens, Enbridge reports that 60% of aboriginal groups within 80km of the pipeline route have now agreed to sign on as equity partners in the project, meaning they’re already set to enjoy a share of the revenues from Northern Gateway.
The only demand not already in the process of being addressed is Clark’s new insistence that B.C. get their “fair share.” This explosive political rhetoric was void of details. If she’s referring to oil royalties, they constitutionally belong to Alberta. Michael Percy, the former dean of the University of Alberta’s business school, warned such a precedent would be “so destructive to Canadian federalism.”
The repercussions of such a bizarre and unheard of arrangement aren’t hard to imagine. Pipelines are, after all, just another mode of transport. If Clark would hold Alberta’s exports ransom in exchange for a cut of royalties, then other provinces could do the same to B.C., commanding, for instance, royalty payoffs for allowing trains or trucks carrying B.C. minerals eastward.
Would Clark really redesign our federation into one where provinces interfere with the mobility of one another’s goods in order to extract maximum kickbacks? That isn’t just a depressing vision for a nation, but an economically destructive one — and this coming from a province that once heartily, and wisely, embraced lowering interprovincial barriers, even signing in 2006 a groundbreaking free-trade deal with Alberta aimed at doing just that.
In fact, B.C. has been home to pipelines from Alberta for years. More than half a century, actually: Since 1953, when Kinder Morgan built its Trans Mountain pipeline to carry crude oil and refined products from Alberta to the coast. Right now, that pipeline is delivering 300,000 barrels of ethical, Canadian oil for export to tankers at the Burrard Inlet — just as oil tankers are right now ferrying up and down B.C.’s coast (despite the fictional claim of a coastal tanker “ban” promoted by anti-oil groups). Kinder Morgan, by the way, has applied to expand the capacity of Trans Mountain to 750,000 barrels a day, and would invest $4.1 billion into the Canadian economy to do it.
That proposal and the Northern Gateway plan are significant opportunities for Canada’s economy. But they also represent a critical step to opening world markets to a new, massive, and ethical source of oil from Canada, further weakening the stranglehold that conflict oil producers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have held over oil importers for decades. The more ethical oil we can get to tankers on Canada’s west coast, the more international buyers can choose our oil — produced in a secure, peaceful, environmentally responsible way and to the highest standards of human rights and workers’ rights — over conflict oil from nations supporting terrorism, war, misogyny and repression. Getting Canada’s ethical oil to market is too important for Canada, and for Canadian values, to let political game-playing stand in the way.