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NDP pipeline strategy viable in long term

By Fabian Mayer, February 2, 2016 —

Rachel Notley touted the benefits of a carbon tax and emissions cap for the reputation of Alberta’s energy sector when she announced Alberta’s new climate plan in November. She claimed it would help the province access new energy markets for our oil.

But two months later, the pipeline debate is as contentious as ever, and the prospects of Alberta crude reaching tidewater any time soon remain grim.

The two remaining large pipeline proposals — after Keystone XL and Northern Gateway were squashed — are Transcanada’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain. Both of these modify existing pipeline infrastructure to bring oil to Canada’s east and west coasts respectively.

But mayors in the Montreal and Vancouver metropolitan areas have still come out against the projects. The provincial B.C. government also opposes Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline. It seems Alberta’s plan to tackle carbon emissions didn’t have much impact on their decisions.

The mayors argued environmental risks outweighed the economic benefits. Unsurprisingly, their decision was made on the basis of self-interest.

This exposes a flaw in the NDP government’s logic that an effort to curb emissions will make it easier to get Alberta’s oil to markets. As recent decisions made clear, jurisdictions make their decisions by weighing the potential costs and benefits of a project. Even if carbon emissions appear somewhere on the list of costs, it is no doubt near the very bottom.

The idea that new Alberta climate policies will somehow convince a handful of mayors or the province of B.C. of the merits of a project is somewhere between wishful thinking and utterly ridiculous.

However, the new policies have been successful in other ways. They have stripped pipeline opponents of one of their justifications for their position. Even if it hasn’t changed anyone’s mind, it has moved the conversation. As evidenced by none of the mayors bringing it up, the charge of Alberta not caring about the environment has become much less viable.

Nobody is talking about Alberta’s “dirty oil” anymore. The province appears to be winning the public relations battle. Meanwhile, the municipalities in question have taken heat for denying other parts of the country significant economic benefits for the sake of narrow self-interest.

Even Rick Mercer — by no means a right-wing figure — criticized the Montreal mayor’s decision in one of his alleyway rants.

By taking away a key justification for opponents attempting to scuttle pipeline projects, the NDP has made it more likely that these projects will eventually go forward. The political and public pressure on those standing in the way will mount over the coming months, and if the projects pass the federal government’s review process, they may actually get built.

The Alberta government’s climate policies have yet to help get any pipelines approved. However, they are slowly making opposition to pipelines less tenable. Alberta is playing the long game — and it’s working.

Fabian Mayer is a fifth-year political science student at the University of Calgary. He writes a monthly column about Canadian politics called Last Past the Post

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