‘Drama free?’ Not so much on the Energy East debate

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley wanted a respectful debate on the pipeline. That’s not what played out.

CALGARY – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has said she wants the discussion over pipelines to be “drama free,” but this week it was anything but.

A coalition of Montreal-area mayors came out against the $15.7-billion Energy East Pipeline on Thursday, setting off a bout of cross-Canada sniping between municipal and provincial politicians over a matter that falls within federal jurisdiction.

Notley said it was “short-sighted” for the Montreal Metropolitan Community to oppose Energy East on the grounds its risks outweigh its economic benefit.

Other Western politicians had harsher words on social media.

“I trust Montreal-area mayors will politely return their share of $10B in equalization supported by West,” Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall tweeted.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre retorted with the respective populations of metropolitan Montreal versus Saskatchewan: four million compared to 1.13 million.

Meanwhile, Brian Jean, head of Alberta’s Opposition Wildrose Party, blasted Coderre for allowing raw sewage to be dumped into the St. Lawrence River while opposing Energy East on environmental grounds.

The tone between Notley and her Ontario counterpart was much more congenial at a news conference Friday.

Premier Kathleen Wynne praised the climate change initiatives of Alberta’s NDP government, saying those efforts are making “the national conversation about climate targets and pipelines easier.”

Many of Ontario’s conditions for supporting the pipeline are starting to be addressed, Wynne added.

Energy East, proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP), would take up to 1.1 million barrels a day of Alberta crude as far east as an Irving Oil refinery and export terminal in Saint John, N.B.

In Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged everyone to work together.

“I’m very much in the camp of both premiers Wynne and Notley, who demonstrated that Canada can and should work together on eco-ssues for all of us. That’s the focus that I’ve always taken — collaborating, respectful, working together to solve the challenges that are facing all Canadians.”

Trevor McLeod, director of the centre for natural resources policy at the Canada West Foundation, said the sub-national pipeline spat is frustrating to watch when there are bigger issues to deal with — like the U.S. going from Canada’s biggest customer to its biggest competitor.

“There’s big stuff going on right now and we’re playing this parochial game in Canada about who gets what,” he said. “Are we a country or not? If you can’t get product through the other provinces to global markets, I don’t think we can sustain this notion that we’re going to be a trading nation.”

The debate over pipelines has become the “trickiest national unity issue in Canada” over the past five years or so, said Sean Kheraj, a York Univeristy historian focused on Canada’s approach to energy and the environment.

Similar East-versus-West quarrels have erupted in the past. But the lines of division have flipped.

Amid the 1970s oil shocks, Ottawa wanted a pipeline to send western crude east to ensure a steady supply of crude and offered subsidies to Interprovincial Pipe Lines, the forerunner of Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB), to get it done. Alberta opposed the move because producers could sell oil for a higher price to the Americans than domestically.

The prime minister at the time — Pierre Trudeau, the father of the current prime minister — took a much more hands-on approach to energy issues, said Kheraj.

“That’s the irony. In the 1970s, Interprovincial got dragged kicking and screaming into building this pipeline to Montreal and today we’ve got TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge banging down the door trying to get these pipelines built.”

Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey said Ottawa has the power to declare Energy East a “national project” and approve it over local objections.

But whether the Liberal government chooses to do so is another matter.

“I think there will be a reluctance on the part of Mr. Trudeau — as there was on the part of Mr. Harper — to make those decisions.”

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