It was 32 years ago that Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government made a decision that still resonates with Western voters. That decision was to implement the National Energy Program (NEP), a plan intended to “redistribute revenue from the [oil] industry and lessen the cost of oil for Eastern Canada” which was viewed as an assault on Alberta’s rights and whose very mention will still raise the blood pressure of many west of Manitoba. It is one of those critical moments in our political history that changed the political landscape and directly led to who is leading our country today, and under what banner.
It was within the resulting Alberta-centric dialogue that a former leader of his high school’s young Liberal’s club switched allegiance, citing the NEP as his primary reason for abandoning first the Liberal Party and then the Conservatives when Mulroney took years to shut the program down after winning office. Having abandoned two mainstream Partys, a young Stephen Harper was introduced to and became an early supporter of Preston Manning’s upstart Reform Party. In 1987 when Harper gave a speech at the Reform Party’s founding convention the West wanted to be heard, and by 2006 in Harper’s victory speech ‘the West was in’.
Harper’s viewpoint on this issue is well documented. He felt that Ottawa had no place in making decisions that affected the wealth of a province, and that by attempting to make a program that forced Alberta to share its resource wealth with the rest of Canada the Federal Government was overstepping its Constitutional bounds. To quote from his famous “Firewall Letter”, “It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”
The reverberations from the fallout of the NEP have resonated through Ottawa ever since with no serious subsequent Federal attempts made since to develop anything approaching a cohesive national energy plan for fear of further alienating provinces. According to the Constitution and subsequent agreements, the provinces have largely unfettered jurisdiction over the development of their energy resources, with the Federal government only dealing with general environmental and safety standards, inter-provincial and international trade issues, and the use of resources on Federal lands.
Even within this limited scope of responsibility the Federal government treads lightly. If Alberta was livid that it felt it’s wealth was being co-opted by Canada, in Newfoundland the Federal government refusal to become involved in the longstanding dispute between Quebec and Newfoundland over the energy profits from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric projects struck the opposite chord. Technology at the time required an overland transmission of power from Muskrat Falls to US markets, and Quebec held Newfoundland to ransom on a deal forcing them to hook up to Quebec-owned power lines at a set price. The subsequent rise in electricity rates have resulted in Quebec pocketing over 90% of the profits from energy produced in Labrador. Quebec’s reticence at a fair renegotiation of the price paid has forced Newfoundland to undertake a massively more expensive and risky undersea route through Nova Scotia for the next phase of the Muskrat Falls development in order to ensure that they retain an equitable share of future energy production.
As leader of Canada, however, Harper’s job is to protect the interests of all Canadians. To paraphrase George Orwell, some Provinces should not be more equal than others, and if it is the deeply held belief of the Prime Minister that a Province has the right to protect it’s economic interests then he must be respectful of that right of all Provinces – not just Alberta. It is against that idea that the Prime Minister’s enthusiastic backing of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline must be measured. Where Quebec’s forcing Newfoundland to share in revenue for energy transported across it’s territory is accepted without reservation, British Columbia’s demand for revenue sharing from Alberta for any pipeline crossing their territories has been described as a “rewriting of Confederation” by Alberta Premiere Alison Redford, and denounced as a “toll gate approach” that doesn’t serve the national interest by senior Cabinet members such as John Baird and Jason Kenney. This despite the fact that Quebec faces no environmental risks from carrying hydroelectric power across its territories as compared to the significant environmental risks that British Columbia is assuming if a pipeline is installed.
And those risks are very real. British Columbia is being asked to accept a pipeline operator with a deplorable safety record whose actions in response to a major accident in the US was equated to the Keystone Kops who wishes to build a pipeline though some of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain in Canada, terminating at a port that will require the largest and most unmanoeuvrable vessels on the seas to make a difficult passage through narrow channels. To put this into perspective, no other country in the world brings supertankers into such an inland port, and most force them to dock far offshore for loading in order to try and mitigate the risks of grounding. The compensation being offered to British Columbia is the economic benefit of the construction jobs, and then only a handful of long term jobs for terminal operations and pipeline maintenance once the pipeline is in operation. This is all that is being offered to offset the significant risks of spills on land in pristine wilderness areas, and in the coastal waters that support a $1.4 Billion per year seafood industry.
From the Federal perspective, however, it seems perfectly clear that there is no possible chance that this project is not green-lighted no matter what evidence may come to light during the review process. The Prime Minister has stated while visiting China that it is “increasingly clear that it is in Canada’s national interest to diversify our energy markets. To this end, our government is committed to ensuring that Canada has the infrastructure necessary to move our energy resources to those diversified markets.” Meanwhile, the review process itself is being bankrolled by Asian interests, although Enbridge refuses to disclose exactly which companies have provided the $100 Million in seed funding to cover the pipeline review, noting only that they are Asian shipping interests and tar sands producers. It must be noted that China has invested heavily in tar sands production in recent years, gobbling up several production operations, so it is entirely possible that the entire review is being bankrolled through Beijing, and that the bulk of the shipping and mining profits from oil to be carried through the pipeline will be from foreign owned and therefore of limited positive financial impact to Canada if those profits are simply syphoned to their overseas parents.
Despite this lack of transparency, in order to ensure the success of Enbridge’s proposed pipeline Harper has kept a finger firmly tilting the scale of the entire process while delivering a personal PR compaign on Enbridge’s behalf. On January 12th of this year, Harper emphasized on a Calgary radio show that overturning the 1974 moratorium on allowing supertankers to operate in BC coastal waters was a government priority for the upcoming year, a priority that he delivered just a month later. Also in January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver denigrated all opposition voices in the review process when he lumped any concerned citizens who wished to address the environmental review panel as being foreign-funded radicals. Oliver’s statement was “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams. These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” Which seems an unfair complaint if one is willing to accept foreign special interests funding the other side of the debate.
But when boosterism isn’t guaranteed to be enough, the next step is to ensure that the debate itself is rigged. So, to ensure that such a “hijacking” could not occur, the government solution was to rig the review process by passing Bill C-38 which replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and neutered the Energy Board Act and the Species at Risk Act. The passing of this act immediately terminated over 3,000 ongoing environmental impact assessments and put veto power into the hands of the government over the findings under those acts. No matter what the conclusion might be of what little environmental impact studies might occur, the Minister can now simply ignore the evidence and allow a project to proceed with a stroke of a pen. Putting tight deadlines on such studies also ensures that oversight will be hard-pressed to perform the required oversight, let alone have any meaningful discussion on how to mitigate risks.
And the assessment process for the Northern Gateway Pipeline is indeed being allowed to continue without much meaningful discussion. Enbridge was initially not required to even include the damning report of their emergency response failures in the US into their submission, and have mounted a disinformation campaign that includes misleading graphics that minimize the risks of running tankers into Kitimat, and failing to account for the specific type of oil the pipeline will carry in the provided disaster planning. The government has helped out by blocking members of the review panel from asking the questions they need to ask to do their jobs and provide proper oversight.
From British Columbia’s perspective, they are being asked to assume almost all of the risks of this pipeline. Risks to it’s pristine interior wilderness, risks to it’s coastline, and risks to their $1.4 Billion seafood industry. To that end, B.C Premiere Christy Clark has quite reasonably demanded a discussion on royalty sharing as part of any discussion of a national energy strategy, but there is still no stomach for that sort of meaningful discussion in Ottawa.
If Alberta ever needed to “limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction”, then surely it is correct for British Columbia to do the same. Pierre Trudeau implemented the NEP on an unwilling Alberta citing the national interest and was vilified for it by Stephen Harper. Fast forward 32 years, however, and Harper is more than willing to try do the same to British Columbia. If he succeeds in this, he had better pray that no ecological disaster strikes our Western-most province or it will become as hard for a Conservative to ever be elected there again as it is for a Liberal to win the vote in Calgary. The costs to British Columbia, however, would be far greater.