Alberta’s NDP probably needs their B.C. counterparts to lose

Opinion | by Gillian Steward

It’s entirely possible that Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley secretly hopes B.C. premier Christy Clark will soundly beat the NDP in the upcoming provincial election.

That’s because a win by the NDP would put one of Notley’s most prized bragging points — the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline — in jeopardy.

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, a former colleague of Notley’s, opposes the $7.4 billion pipeline, which would transport diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to shipping terminals near Vancouver. He has pledged to withdraw B.C.’s support if elected on May 9.

That would be a disaster for Notley, who has gone to great lengths to try and convince Albertans that her NDP government not only supports the petroleum industry’s expansion plans but sees them as essential to the province’s economic well being.

She often points out her government’s Climate Leadership Plan, which includes a carbon tax and a cap on oilsands emissions, paved the way for federal approval of the pipeline. Those carbon reduction strategies, she argues, dampened the arguments against the pipeline mounted by environmentalists, climate change activists, and some indigenous groups, thereby making it easier to gain social license.

For many New Democrats in B.C., Notley’s attempts to curb carbon emissions simply weren’t enough. They reject Kinder Morgan’s expanded pipeline because of the threat of explosions, leaks, and spills. They don’t want tankers full of tarry bitumen plying the waters off their coast, even if it would help Alberta’s economy.

New Democrats in the B.C. interior are more amenable to the project because it will employ construction workers and local contractors. But the heavily populated areas on the coast will hold the most sway come election time.

It’s not clear what the B.C. government could actually do to prevent construction of the pipeline, which has been approved by the National Energy Board and the federal government. But even just delaying the start of construction could be enough to weaken Notley’s claim she has been more successful at getting major oil pipelines approved than her conservative predecessors at both the provincial and federal level.

This may not mean much in B.C., but in Alberta it is an important bragging point for an NDP premier, especially since the low price of oil has caused corporate layoffs, reduced investment in the oilpatch, and eroding confidence in the Notley’s government.

Earlier this month Notley announced that none of her staff would be allowed to work for the NDP during the B.C. election. So far, Notley has good reason to be worried.

Polls show the NDP are in the lead at 40 per cent with the Liberals a close second. Complicating matters is the support for the Greens, who also oppose The Trans Mountain pipeline. They are up around 17 per cent. At this stage, a minority NDP government with support from the Greens is certainly within the realm of possibility.

At the federal level, Justin Trudeau is also no doubt hoping the NDP lose to Christy Clark’s Liberals (even though they aren’t his brand of Liberals). Throwing a monkey wrench into the Trans Mountain pipeline will only make his life more complicated.

As for the federal NDP, it stands to end up caught in the middle of a nasty fight between two NDP premiers. That should do wonders for its image.

Of course, the NDP was touted to win the 2013 B.C. election. But that was before its leader Adrian Dix revealed he was opposed to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, even though Kinder Morgan was still in the midst of the application process.

That seemed to spook voters who felt Dix had gone too far in his quest to outdo the Greens, who were gaining support at the expense of the NDP.

In the end, Christy Clark won a resounding victory.

She may pull it off again. Especially since, according to Democracy Watch, more than $550,000 was donated to the B.C. Liberal party by pipeline-related companies over the past five years.

Notley, no doubt, hopes all that money will save her bacon as well. ❧

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.