On Kinder Morgan: Canada is divided, Alberta is not, and everyone has a lot to lose

On Kinder Morgan: Canada is divided, Alberta is not, and everyone has a lot to lose

By Ian Holliday, Research Associate

There is a sudden sense of urgency surrounding Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline expansion project these days, brought on the company’s announcement that it’s halting “non-essential” spending until May 31 and considering abandoning the project altogether after that date.

But the current national freak-out obscures a years-long drama over the proposal. We at the Angus Reid Institute have been asking Canadians about the TransMountain pipeline – and the protests against it – since 2014.

Canadians have mixed feelings about the project. Lots of people are in favour. Some are uncertain. Many are opposed, but hardly any of them live in Alberta.

There is a social consensus in support of the TransMountain pipeline in Wild Rose Country that is – perhaps unsurprisingly – unmatched elsewhere in the country. In ARI’s most recent poll on the subject, more than eight-in-ten Albertans said B.C.’s government was wrong to try to stall the pipeline (84% said so), that their own government has a more persuasive argument on the matter (82%), and that local governments should not have veto power on pipelines being built through their jurisdictions (80%).

Compare those figures to the national numbers on these questions:

Angus Reid Institute

Angus Reid Institute

For Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, the task is clear: The pipeline must be built. Alberta’s commitment to ensuring that this happens can be seen in the quick succession of proposals from the Notley government, which has offered to make Alberta taxpayers an investor in the TransMountain project or even to buy it outright. Alberta’s government is also considering legislation to give itself the power to cut off gas shipments to B.C. if its neighbour continues obstructing the pipeline expansion.

For Alberta, the possibility that the TransMountain pipeline might not be twinned is unthinkable and unacceptable, and – in the minds of the province’s political commentariat, at least – the consequences would be near-apocalyptic.

For the other players in this drama, however, things are not quite so cut-and-dried.

Consider the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They approved the project in 2016, and have remained committed to ensuring that the pipeline gets built, but they’ve been considerably less specific than Alberta about what steps they will take to make that happen.

“This pipeline will be built,” said Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr on Sunday, after Kinder Morgan’s announcement. Even after an emergency Cabinet meeting on the subject on Tuesday, however, Carr would only say that the government has “many options” to consider.

The federal government may yet take concrete action to put pressure on B.C., perhaps by withholding funding or invoking constitutional powers. If Ottawa seems hesitant to throw its weight around on this file, however, it’s likely the result of political calculations.

Trudeau and the Liberals won 17 seats in British Columbia in 2015 – nearly all of them in Metro Vancouver, where the terminus of the TransMountain pipeline is located.

B.C. residents who voted for the Liberals in 2015, like Liberal voters overall, are divided on the pipeline question. Most of them (55%) say the provincial government is wrong to try to delay the expansion of the pipeline, but that’s hardly a convincing majority. If the Liberals lost the 45 per cent of their 2015 supporters who take the B.C. government’s side in this fight, they’d have a hard time holding their seats in the province in the next election.

Indeed, while the relevance of this pipeline battle as a national political issue is debatable, the Liberals stand a decent chance of frustrating their past supporters no matter what they do on this file. This is perhaps especially true of those in Quebec, where opposition to the pipeline is stronger even than it is in B.C. Overall, past Liberals are at least as divided as the general public on this issue:

Angus Reid Institute

For the government of B.C. Premier John Horgan, the calculus is similarly complex. Horgan’s minority government is reliant on the support of the three-member Green Party caucus, and his party’s agreement with the Greens requires opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

But Horgan is the premier of a divided province. More British Columbians support the twinning of the pipeline (48% do) than oppose it (40%), and even supporters of Horgan’s New Democratic Party are hardly unanimous in backing his government’s strategy to delay:

By continuing to oppose the pipeline, Horgan is making good on his party’s campaign promise and its promise to the BC Greens. As he says, he’s standing up for B.C.’s coastline, which would see a sevenfold increase in oil tanker traffic if the pipeline is built.

But Horgan is also gambling that his pipeline opposition won’t drive away the more than one-third of his supporters who disapprove of his government’s strategy and want to see the pipeline built.

All of this adds up to an uncertain outcome for this standoff – an outcome that may remain uncertain even after Horgan, Trudeau, and Notley meet face-to-face on Sunday.

Roughly half of Canadians (49%) say they support the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline, while one-in-three (33%) are opposed and the rest (18%) are unsure. Supporters of the pipeline outnumber opponents, but opponents have been vocal and organized, and they have shown that they are willing to engage in civil disobedience to further their cause.

Will the federal government take decisive action to stop the B.C. government’s challenges to the project? Would such action further galvanize protesters? Could Alberta successfully get the pipeline built by becoming one of its principal investors and applying economic pressure to its neighbour?

Kinder Morgan’s self-imposed May 31 deadline will likely accelerate the pace at which these questions are answered. Some of them may even be answered this weekend. Whether they’re answered to the satisfaction of Kinder Morgan – and Canadians – remains to be seen.

Contact the author: ian.holliday@angusreid.org 

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