It wasn’t all that long ago that relations between the premiers of B.C. and Alberta were a total mess. Cheesy photo ops were replaced by tense standoffs after B.C. Premier Christy Clark demanded a “fair share” for piping Alberta’s heavy oil to its sensitive coastline. Alberta Premier Alison Redford labelled this an unprecedented cash grab, and described their relationship as “frosty.” Sub-Arctic was more like it.
Barely a week passed without some new fight. Clark would boast that B.C. had created more jobs than its neighbour—“even without that great natural resource they call oil.” Redford would respond by saying the B.C. coast belonged to all of Canada “and should be made available for all Canadians to make use of,” causing tempers to flare on the coast.
But within minutes of Clark’s re-election last month, the darts suddenly stopped flying; ever since, it’s been nothing but sunshine and rainbows from both camps.
Redford, the first premier to congratulate Clark on her surprise victory over the NDP, was practically gushing—insomuch as a globe-trotting human rights lawyer can gush—telling Maclean’s how “fantastic” Clark had looked on the campaign trail, what a “formidable” politician she was, what a “great chat” they’d had the day after Clark’s big win. Clark was no less conciliatory. “Yes, we have had a very public disagreement about the Enbridge pipeline and heavy oil movement,” the B.C. premier acknowledged in an interview. “But you know, everything is resolvable.”
Clark even likened their relationship to a marriage: “You might fight about who takes out the garbage, but you still sit down and have dinner together, and plan a future for your kids.” (Speaking of kids, Redford even invited Clark’s 11-year-old son, Hamish, for a playdate with her daughter Sarah, who is his age.)
Calling this a turnaround would be an understatement, but this is more than the story of two warring premiers making nice; it’s about the larger question of the stalled pipeline projects across Western Canada, the country’s economic powerhouse. Clark’s surprise victory in B.C. will have an outsized impact on politics nation-wide, nowhere more so than in Alberta.
What changed? For one, the balance of power has been turned on its head. With Alberta’s oil sands crude blocked at every exit, its bargaining position suddenly seems precarious. This spring Redford warned of a $6-billion hole in next year’s budget, while a new report from RBC Dominion Securities says $9 billion in oil sands development is at risk in the next seven years if the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas is further delayed or cancelled by President Barack Obama.
For Clark, the reverse is true: before the writ dropped in April, she was clinging to her political future by her fingernails, trailing the NDP by almost 20 points. But in the election, Clark strengthened her majority and the B.C. Liberals won a mandate to increase natural resource development, renewing hopes in Redford’s office, where many had been quietly planning for four years with the NDP.
Clark never entirely closed the door on new pipelines from Alberta, but her requirement that B.C. be adequately compensated for them—“an entirely reasonable demand,” Enbridge lobbyists tell Maclean’s—all but killed the Northern Gateway proposal. One prominent national columnist labelled it “extortion.” But Clark wasn’t aiming at Ontario, or even Alberta, but squarely at voters in British Columbia.
Her careful hedge did two things: it allowed Clark to play Captain B.C. by standing up for her province and telling British Columbians she wouldn’t be cowed into supporting a project that would benefit Alberta and Ontario more than B.C., which was swallowing the hefty risk. And crucially, ahead of the provincial election campaign, it let her hold onto both fiscally and environmentally minded centrist voters. Last summer her approval ratings were tanking and she was rated the second-least-popular premier in the country. As soon as she stood up to Redford, says University of Victoria political scientist Michael Prince, her numbers “spiked.”
Redford’s opposition to paying compensation to B.C. has suddenly changed. She now says she’s keen to reopen talks with Clark, the sooner the better, apparently aware she’ll need to help Clark sell the project to British Columbians. “We need to have those discussions,” she says, adding that she’s invited Clark to Alberta in the coming weeks.
As hobbled as Alberta seems at the moment, Clark risks blowback if she overplays her hand. Clark believes B.C.’s future lies in liquefied natural gas. But as the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid recently noted, citing figures provided by Redford’s office, “nearly 50 per cent of B.C.’s growing natural gas production crosses Alberta to get to market.” Albertans could demand a cut.
Even if the two premiers mend fences and present a united front on the pipeline, the project faces significant hurdles, most significantly from First Nations along the route.
For now, though, one major barrier has fallen. Redford blames the yawning divide that grew between her and Clark on their similarities: “She’s a staunch defender of her province. I’m a staunch defender of my province. She is certainly a formidable person. And I think people will often say the same thing about me.”