Rachel Notley takes on pipeline critics—even if they’re from her party

The Alberta Premier on selling a pipeline in Vancouver, diversifying the economy, and surviving a merger on the right
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Calgary, Alberta, December 2, 2016. (Photograph by Todd Korol)
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Calgary, Alberta, December 2, 2016. (Photograph by Todd Korol)
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Calgary, Alberta, December 2, 2016. (Photograph by Todd Korol)

Seven of Canada’s provincial premiers are Liberal, but lately Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been fondly linking arms with the lone NDP premier. After Alberta Premier Rachel Notley pushed a ban on coal by 2030, a carbon tax, and promoted oil sands pipelines in the last few months, Trudeau followed suit, giving the cabinet’s green light to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to a Vancouver-area port. It was Notley, before Trudeau, who travelled to British Columbia to sell the “economy and environment go hand in hand” message, in the face of opposition from Indigenous groups, environmentalists, and—yes—the federal and B.C. New Democrats.

Q: For all the talk of winning social licence for pipelines, was the only social licence you really needed to win from Trudeau’s cabinet table?

A: They were part of the group for sure, but I think they themselves also pay attention to moderates and progressives across the country, and that’s who we’re still working with and who we’re still working to convince. Does that mean that we’ll convince everybody? Social licence doesn’t mean complete consensus. It means a majority of people are prepared to go along with it, and that’s what we’re still working for. That’s what it means to me.

Q: What’s it been like, as somebody who’s a lifelong NDPer, when you see NDPers and progressives angry with the decision you’re making? I don’t know if we’ve seen it yet, but I could easily foresee people from the left with your name on a protest banner, not just from the right anymore.

A: This is not new to the NDP. I know that the vast majority of my values are still very much aligned with the vast majority of other people in my party. We value genuine progress in protecting the environment. We also value the right and the need for working people to be able to make a decent living. And that’s also a fundamental component to being New Democrat. With what level of skill do we proceed to achieve both of those objectives, without undermining either one of them? It is not my view that when someone disagrees with you that you call them an enemy of the state, kick them out of the room and [let them] stay in their own echo chamber. That is a path to irrelevance.

Q: Don’t you do that a lot when you hear conservatives? You don’t do that on the environmental side, but when you hear conservative criticism, you and your party—and we see it all the time in question period—do exactly that. You shout back.

A: Well, I think question period’s a bit of a different dynamic. But to the degree that I’ve met with business leaders and investor types and talk about what kinds of things are important for the economy in Alberta, I think I have been fairly pragmatic.

Q: Does the lack of in-your-face, anti-pipeline opposition in Alberta make it difficult for Albertans­­—including yourself—to understand why people are so upset in the Lower Mainland?

A: I’ve always believed that Albertans actually have an inherently built-in desire to also protect the environment, that Albertans feel very connected to the land. Certainly, myself, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I spent eight years in B.C. I understand: you get up in the morning and when you try to figure out why you’re in this place that never stops raining, you look west and you see the mountains and you see the ocean, and you understand how beautiful it is. These are visceral things. People are worried and so you need to have facts and reason and dialogue, and that’s what I am interested in promoting.

Q: One of the facts, and this is something the National Energy Board concluded, is that this is going to severely affect the Southern Resident killer whales. It would be like running a pipeline and ending it at the bison reserve at Alberta’s Elk Island National Park, or grizzly habitats. What do you say to those who believe Trudeau and Notley have chosen oil sands jobs over these iconic animals?

A: I do believe that with the right safety precautions that some of the concerns identified there can be ameliorated. And the concerns that are associated with simply the increase in traffic—well, frankly, as the economy grows, and Vancouver being the only Canadian port on the western side of our country, traffic generally speaking in and out of Vancouver is going to increase. So the linkage necessarily to the pipeline, I’m not sure entirely it’s “A will cause B.” But that being said, the other thing is it’s not just oil sands jobs. A quarter of a million people in Canada are essentially employed in the oil and gas sector in one fashion or another.

Q: To believe that the Prime Minister meant it when he said he couldn’t have made this approval without the NDP climate plan in Alberta, would be to believe that under the right circumstances he would have been willing to leave this resource in the ground. Do you believe that?

A: I’m going to take him at his word. And I know that what he’s speaking—

Q: Which word though? He said the government would never leave this in the ground, and that he couldn’t have done this without a climate leadership plan?

A: We couldn’t have done this without the climate leadership plan, I believe. First of all, 60 per cent of the coal burned in Canada is burned in Alberta. Without this government’s clear commitment to phase it out to zero by 2030, there’s no way the country of Canada could have made the kind of commitments that it has with respect to climate change. In addition, when it comes to the pipeline specifically, by putting the emissions cap in place, what we’re able to say is emissions are not going to go up at the rate people thought they were as a result of this pipeline going into operation. And that is a critical, critical piece of the argument.

What I’m saying is our climate leadership plan means the pipeline is not connected to the issue of climate change. It is solely connected to the rate of return we receive for a product that will be created anyway, and will stop being created when the cap is hit. It is not about increasing volume.

Q: Would you have had a hope of getting Albertans to believe in the importance of a carbon tax if we weren’t getting pipelines at the other end?

A: I don’t know. I think Albertans, their jury is still out. I think that had we been bringing in our climate change leadership plan when oil was still at $100 per barrel, I think we would have had much wider support. Now people are nervous. They’re nervous about change, because they’re rightfully nervous about their jobs and their security. So it makes it a bit difficult and therefore the pipeline becomes also a critical part of the argument. Because the climate leadership plan achieves other objectives that I know Albertans care about: it diversifies the economy; it allows us to move to more renewable energy; it allows us to finally develop an energy efficiency program—[Alberta is] the only province in the country without one.

Q: Is there a danger in overstating the importance of this pipeline approval?

A: I don’t know. I think, in fact, it is very important. I think that we are selling our product at a very discounted rate into a market that is continuing to be our greatest competitor; that level of competition grows every day. So the ability to expand our markets to the Asia Pacific is really quite fundamental to the strength of the energy industry over the course of the next years, because you want to get the maximum amount of return that you can, even if the world does start to reduce its reliance on oil and gas.

Q: That said, I know your government has placed a large emphasis on economic diversification away from resource extraction. Does this week hurt the cause you’re going toward on diversification—which becomes more important if, as you suggest, demand might be on the wane in the not-too-distant horizon?

A: There’s no question diversification is a bit of an art as well as a science, and we need to keep it front and centre and we can’t be lazy about it. Growth of the energy sector and the health of the energy sector can be, if it’s paired with laziness on the part of government, just allowed to carry the day. Should we come out of this trough that we’re in right now, I think we’ve had a generational lesson about the need to focus on diversification and use the considerable resources that we still have now to invest in that diversification, so we’re better positioned should the prices drop in the future. This is not going to be something we’re doing for the next 200 years, so we need to get the best return for it now so we can help fund the kind of technological innovation that will drive our growth and our prosperity in the future.

Q: Will your political survival be harder or easier if the Alberta PC party and Wildrose merge?

A: I think it’s way too hard to predict. I’ll deal with it when it comes. We are a big-tent party. We have demonstrated that while we have some clear values that we will not depart from, we are reasonable, we are pragmatic and we are open to people with different ideas. Witness the fact that [former PC member] Sandra Jansen joined our party a couple of weeks ago. I hope more people like her will start to see a home for themselves in our party.