Respite from pipeline politics could allow Notley to focus on economy, other energy issues

Ottawa’s started pistol sounded Friday and the countdown to restarting construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project has begun. If Rachel Notley has her way, shovels will be back in the ground by early spring and she says her government will “hold the federal government’s feet to the fire” to make that happen. But there are no guarantees, and delays will haunt the NDP premier if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan falters even the slightest.

Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi  announced that the Trudeau Government has instructed the  National Energy Board (NEB) to reconsider its decision to not consider the environmental impacts of increased marine traffic on Southern resident killer whales.

Amerjeet Sohi.

Canada announced a program that would address impacts on the endangered animals in June, but it was too late to be considered by the NEB. The $1.4 billioon Oceans Protection Plan will also be considered by the energy regulator and a special marine technical advisor will be appointed to the NEB.

Sohi maintains the feds  “are committed to ensuring that the NEB has the expertise and capacity to deliver the best advice to the Government.”

Impacts on the killer whales was one of two issues flagged by the Federal Court of Appeal when it struck down the Governor In Council approval of TMX earlier this month. The other was indequate consultation with affected BC indigenous communities.

The court said the government failed on several very specific and focused issues that it though could be addressed relatively quickly.

BC Environment Minister George Heyman said that the FCA’s concern about the impact of marine shipping validated the repeated concerns of Premier John Horgan, who insists that “[m]eaningful consultation is critical to any future actions.”

While Sohi didn’t commit to a timeline for completing the consultations, he repeated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that Canada “remains committed to a clear and reliable path forward for the project.”

“No relationship is more important to the Government and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples. We are pleased that the NEB will provide participant funding so that the views of Indigenous groups are well represented in the Board’s consideration of marine issues,” he also said in his statement.

All well and good, says the Alberta premier, but she’s tired of hearing promises from Ottawa that don’t quite pan out. In fact, there is a growing concern in the province – certainly within the energy sector – that the federal government has simply not executed well on the pipeline file.

I must say if we still remain a little bit skeptical,” Notley told reporters at a press conference. “Our focus now is that the timeline is set in stone. That’s the issue. And if it starts to slip, and the goal post shift, I can insure you that the voices of Albertans will be loud. Individually they will be loud, I have no doubt of that, but through my government they will be heard.”

In response to a question about using Bill 12, the “turn off the taps legislation” that empowers Alberta to issue certificates restricting exports of crude oil and gas to other provinces, Notley refused to show her hand.

“As I’ve said every time, it depends on the situation. What the best strategy is for the time being what we are going to do is we are going to continue to push very hard across this country to grow the support and understanding about the importance of this pipeline getting built so that folks in the federal government listen,” she replied.

Instead, Alberta will continue its country-wide effort – a $1.2 million campaign Energi News expert Doug Lacombe called “too little, too late” – to educate Canadians about the benefits of the 590,000 b/d Trans Mountain Expansion, which would twin the existing pipeline and deliver diluted oil sands bitmen from the Edmonton area to the Westridge Terminal at Burnaby, BC. The ultra heavy crude could then be shipped by tanker to Asian refineries or those along the US west coast, where some customers have already been buying the controversial oil.

When asked if she’s concerned about her re-election chances if TMX construction doesn’t re-start soon, Notley replied, “my focus right now is to provide certainty to working Albertans, to employers and job creators who employ them, and to investors who are an important part of that puzzle. The certainty that they need to know that this pipeline is going to go forward.”

A resonable person would likely conclude that Notley is very concerned. As Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt previously told Energi News, construction crews working and bulldozers moving earth are a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for the NDP to defeat Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party next spring.

But pollster Janet Brown has noted that Notley’s high profile battles over TMX have earned her respect from conservatives, who will never vote for her, but not from her party members and political centrists, who are concerned about economic and pocketbook issues.

The 22-week – at a bare minimum – delay to the project may work to Notley’s benefit if it removes pipelines from the headlines and allows her to focus on key economic issues, like jobs and selling carbon pricing, which Kenney has exploited to great advantage with his “kill the job-killing carbon tax” campaign.

Tick, tock.