Rachel Notley’s quiet Energy East diplomacy starting to pay off, but Brian Jean’s hardline comments may damage Eastern political support

Someone needs to tell Wildrose Leader Brian Jean his shrill demands for the Canadian government to approve pipelines for Alberta bitumen exports aren’t helping.

Jean

Brian Jean, leader of the Alberta Wildrose Party.

Jean has been all over national media criticizing Premier Rachel Notley for not supporting the Alberta energy industry, specifically new pipelines, which are currently getting a rough ride from Quebec mayors, who announced their opposition to the Energy East project on Thursday.

Now, Jean is the leader of the Alberta Official Opposition and it’s his job to criticize Notley and her government. That’s the way the system works. From that point of view, his comment are perfectly legitimate.

They just may not be helpful. In fact, they may damage the prospects of ever getting approval for the very pipeline projects Jean says he supports.

Let me explain.

Brian Jean

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

I’ve written columns, as well as a thorough piece in Alberta Oil Magazine, describing how the Canadian Constitution and legal precedent gives the federal government exclusive right to approve and regulate inter-provincial pipelines. Provincial and municipal governments have no authority. Zero. In fact, they are constrained by law from impeding Ottawa with their own laws, bylaws, and regulations.

Which leaves them one and only option to oppose pipeline projects: politics.

Local politics matter when it comes to pipelines.

And a potent combination of municipal politicians, well funded eco-activists like Greenpeace, and First Nations have come together to marshall political opposition to Energy East (TransCanada), Northern Gateway (Enbridge), and Trans Mountain Expansion (Kinder Morgan).

This loose knit coalition brought – and is continuing to bring – tremendous pressure to bear on the BC pipeline projects. Northern Gateway is considered by many to be dead. Trans Mountain is in big trouble, primarily because of opposition from Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan. And Christy Clark’s Liberal government is deftly painting the pipeline operators into a corner with her five conditions.

Brian Jean

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan is a vocal pipeline opponent.

The exact same process is beginning to play out in Ontario and Quebec. And if the politics aren’t handled differently, a reasonable person could conclude Energy East will be hobbled in the same fashion as the BC proposals.

But this time around the politics are different. Or, at least, they could be.

I predicted last year, when the premiers announced their national energy strategy, that the stage was being set for Alberta to broker a “climate change initiatives for pipelines deal” with Ontario and Quebec. The idea is that if Alberta shows it is prepared to join the emerging political consensus on climate change and economic decarbonization, political support will be forthcoming for new pipelines to get more bitumen to tidewater and American markets.

Sure enough, late last year Notley’s NDP government announced its climate strategy, including a province-wide carbon tax, the end to coal for power generation, and a generous emissions cap for the Alberta oil sands. On the stage during her announcement were four high profile oil and gas company CEOs. And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers supported the new policies as a strategy to gain market access.

The CEOs are not fools. They understand that when President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, he signaled to the world that fossil fuels had lost the battle for social license. Henceforth, it was either get on board the climate change train or be left at the station.

Brian Jean

Kathleen Wynne, Ontario premier.

Since that announcement, Notley has been quietly stumping in favor of Trans Mountain and Energy East.

In fact, what she’s doing is old-fashioned Canadian politics, building a base of support behind the scenes with the key movers and shakers in other provinces where she needs backing.

Is it working? Well, here is the statement released by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne Friday morning: “I have said all along that we need to balance what must be done to address climate change and protect our environment and the development of our energy resources. That is why the Canadian Energy Strategy is so important. Alberta’s new climate plan – in particular the cap on emissions from the oil sands – makes the national conversation about climate targets and pipelines easier. We appreciate that there is a need for a way to get Canadian oil, which is allowed under Alberta’s new emission cap to overseas markets. And the people of Ontario care a great deal about the national economy and the potential jobs this proposed pipeline project could create in our province and across the country.”

Score one for Notley. A big one.

Brian Jean

Denis Coderre, mayor of Montreal.

Next up, Quebec. Which is why Jean’s rants during national interviews are hurting the cause. Here is Montreal Mayor Dennis Coderre speaking on a popular Radio Canada show about Jean: “First of all, you have to allow me a moment to laugh at a guy like Brian Jean, when he says he relies on science. These are the same guys who think the Flintstones is a documentary. But that’s another story.”

Jean has become a joke in Eastern Canada and that matters because he reinforces the redneck cowboy image so many other Canadians have of Albertans.

Normally, I’d ask who gives a damn what Quebecers (or Ontarians or British Columbians) think of Alberta? The Wildrose province is currently – or was until recently – the economic engine of the country and doesn’t have to kowtow to the mayor of Montreal.

But its premier does have to execute some deft political stratagems during the coming year or two.

And Brian Jean is likely making a tough job that much harder.

The Wildrose leader has to make a choice: Scoring easy political points with his Alberta political base or ensuring he doesn’t sabotage the emerging but still fragile political consensus Notley is building in favor of Energy East.

If getting Energy East built and Alberta bitumen to new markets is really the objective, Jean should rethink his current approach.