Pan-Canadian Perspectives: The TransMountain Pipeline and the National Interest

Screen Shot 2018-04-03 at 2.56.36 PMEditor’s Note: This week, the PPGR is publishing commentary articles from public policy and public administration students at universities across Canada. This Pan-Canadian Perspectives series is meant to highlight voices from coast to coast, addressing diverse issues of local and national importance. The first article in this series is a perspective from the East Coast: Scarlett Kelly from Dalhousie University writes about why the TransMountain pipeline in BC affects all Canadians.

by Scarlett Kelly

The BC government has been attempting to stop the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion for months. Even though it may appear to be simply a BC-Alberta dispute, it is also a Canadian problem for its challenge to the established division of powers, its effects on the Canadian economy, and the possibilities of an inter-provincial trade war that could impact Canadians well beyond the west coast. Therefore, the dispute is no longer a disagreement between two provinces, but a national problem that can hurt all Canadians. The BC government’s political interests in stopping the pipeline should not prevent a project that is in the national interest.

The BC government’s actions challenge the federal government’s jurisdiction and could set a troubling precedent. The Constitution Act, section 92(10), states that infrastructure projects across two or more provinces fall under federal jurisdiction. By trying to stop the federally approved pipeline expansion, the BC government has overstepped its jurisdiction — every provincial government could now stop any cross-province infrastructure going through their lands. BC’s actions set an alarming precedent that could lead to a constitutional crisis.

Stopping the pipeline would also be damaging to the Canadian economy. Currently, Canadian oil producers sell to the U.S. with 20-30% lower rates than the West Texas Intermediate price, a discount of about $31 a barrel than if the oil were sold to Asian countries. The pipeline has the potential to transport 1 million barrels of oil per day to new Asian markets accessible from ocean ports, which translates to as much as $2 billion in revenue per year. In this sense, the pipeline expansion will not only export Alberta oil, but also expand Canada’s oil market and build a stronger Canadian economy.

The BC government’s obstruction of the pipeline could also lead to a trade war that would affect Canadians beyond BC. Alberta’s opposition leader, Jason Kenney, has proposed to cut off oil supply to BC and levy a toll on BC natural gas, if elected. By some estimates, such a measure could cause a spike of the Vancouver gas prices to above $2 per litre. Alberta supply to the Vancouver International Airport could be cut off and East coast people who catch connecting flights to Asia would suffer. A trade war that is bigger than Alberta’s wine ban could be easily triggered given the current situation.

BC does have evidence to support stopping the pipeline. There are environmental concerns about pipeline leaks, especially when the pipeline goes through protected areas, such as the Fraser River Watershed. Concerns about the effects on wildlife, especially killer whales, are also valid. The National Energy Board did not properly consult the affected Indigenous communities, which some argue was a violation of the Crown consultation process and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

However, there are many points of controversy. First, BC has a record of ignoring environmental consequences. Recently, BC Premier John Horgan offered tax breaks, which were worth about 6 billion dollars, to a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Kitimat and an associated gas pipeline. This is quite the opposite attitude towards greenhouse gas emissions and environmental protection compared to BC’s reaction to the Alberta pipeline expansion. Second, even though trade-offs between the economy and environment exist, the revenue from economic development can be used to develop clean energy to promote environmental protection in the long run. Opposing the pipeline means to continue current levels of pollution without the resources to reverse environmental degradation. Using alternative modes of transportation like rail can lead to more pollution because it requires more energy usage and risks more frequent spills. Opposing the pipeline is not an environmental solution.

Then why oppose? The answer is politics. One of the NDP government’s promises during the 2017 election was to stop the pipeline by all legal means possible. As a minority government, the NDP needs the Greens’ support to stay in power. The agreement of support between the BC Greens and the BC NDP specifies that the NDP will “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.” This shows that opposing the pipeline is a necessary method for the NDP government to stay in power and potentially regain power after another election, because the pipeline disruption will be proof that the NDP has fulfilled its promise. Thus, the real reason of stopping the pipeline expansion is to fulfill political promises and advance political interests, not to protect the environmental or Indigenous rights. The focus on the risks to the environment from the pipeline is a smoke bomb to cover the BC NDP’s political interest in keeping the confidence of the BC Greens to stay in power, at significant cost to the Canadian economy and without truly ensuring long-term environmental protection for BC.

What happens next? Even though the Federal Court of Appeal declined to hear an appeal by the BC government and allowed the pipeline project, many resources have been wasted in the process of attempting the stop the pipeline. For example, Kinder Morgan’s investors could withdraw their support during the pipeline dispute due to the $90 million per month for costs and profit loss. For future reference, Ottawa could have asserted more authority instead of merely talking about pipeline impacts with Bill Nye. At the same time, the political interests of BC government, which are the real reason behind BC’s opposition of the pipeline, should be heard by all Canadians. No one should allow BC to stop the pipeline expansion at the cost of the Canadian economy under the name of environmental protection, when the truth is that the BC government only considers its own political interest.

The BC Legislature in Victoria.

Scarlett Kelly is a soon-to-be MPA & MLIS graduate from Dalhousie University in May 2018. She specializes at analyzing social issues and has made her opinions/recommendations heard in multiple conferences and publications. She can be reached at