Pipeline Problems

In purchasing Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, the federal government has now semi-nationalized the oil transportation business. For anyone aware of the controversy generated by Pierre Trudeau's 1975 launch of a state-owned oil company (Petro-Canada), the irony could not be more stark. But this time, direct government involvement is a cause for celebration in Alberta, rather than bitter resentment.

Is it the right call?

The project's merits are debatable, a lot of the science of its potential impacts hotly contested. And the company has at times engaged with First Nations and local governments in a ham-fisted way, perhaps saddled by a board lacking diversity and unprepared for operations outside oil-friendly jurisdictions.

Predictably, First Nations, environmental groups and local governments are challenging this project in the courts (though the project has to date won every challenge put its way). Arguments are being heard against the backdrop of an historic 2017 fire season in British Columbia that at times produced skies that made Vancouver look more like Beijing. The mountains disappeared behind the haze and people were warned away from exercising outdoors. Environmental issues have a way of leaping to the top of the agenda when you can't breathe.

The project presents long and short term dilemmas. In the long term, does it make sense to expand infrastructure for an energy source which many say must not define our future because of the severe impacts of climate change? In the short term, Canada has set targets for carbon reductions and seems intent on a transition to a cleaner energy system. Alberta, commendably and to the surprise of many, has put in place its own climate plan as part of this national strategy. If BC manages to deny Alberta oil access to tidewater, does Alberta remain committed? If Albertans see Canada as working to trash their economy, what kind of government are we going to see in Edmonton next round? Can the Notley government survive or will it be replaced by a government hostile to the idea of taking action on climate change? Is Trans Mountain the project that kills our climate ambitions or is it the price we pay for a national climate action plan? And will we ever get around to an honest conversation about how Canada is going to incent — and benefit from — the energy transition?