Good for Alberta, good for Marois

Paul Wells on the Parti Québécois's sudden love of resources

Few events challenge a political party’s convictions more profoundly than the transition from opposition to power. Suddenly everything is so much more complicated than it was. The other day I asked a Quebec government official how Pauline Marois, the province’s Parti Québécois premier, plans to handle Jean Charest’s plan for major natural resources development in the North.

“We keep going,” the official said. This surprised me. Marois campaigned last autumn on claims that Charest’s vast northern strategy—$80 billion in public and private investment, $14 billion in benefit to the Quebec government—amounted to pillage of Quebec’s natural beauty by private interests. She didn’t want to cancel the whole thing, but she was eager to rein it in by charging much higher royalty rates to mining companies, so Quebec could share the wealth. Of course that might have killed the goose that laid the mineral-laden eggs.

These days she doesn’t talk as much about overhauling the royalty regime. In December she visited New York City to pitch northern development to U.S. investors, telling reporters on the way that she now expected to implement Charest’s plan with “slightly different parameters.”

But there’s more. So much more.

“The two most important days since Mme. Marois became premier,” the Quebec official told me, “were budget day and the day she met Alison Redford.”

That meeting happened last Nov. 22 in Halifax, during the annual premiers’ conference. Redford is Alberta’s premier. She is trying to get oil sands bitumen out of the ground and to market. If she cannot sell the oil, very little of the massive investment in northern Alberta makes economic sense. But everywhere she looks she sees obstacles. Westward, the Northern Gateway pipeline faces opposition from British Columbia’s premier, her likely successor, and just about everyone who shows up at environmental hearings. Southward, the Keystone XL pipeline faces perhaps years of delay even if, as now seems likely, Barack Obama finally gets around to approving it.

That leaves the east. On the day Marois met Redford, the Canadian Press described the Quebecer as a “potentially combative customer.” A reasonable guess but flat wrong. Marois seems positively eager. Last month she added New Brunswick Premier David Alward to her meeting schedule. The two emerged with a plan to jointly study a proposal by TransCanada to pipe hundreds of thousands of barrels a day through Quebec to the Irving refinery in New Brunswick.

Add that to Enbridge’s plan to reverse an existing pipeline to send 300,000 barrels a day to the Suncor refinery in the east end of Montreal, where some of it would be refined on site and the rest shipped by boat—big honking boats—to the Ultramar refinery in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City.

The stakes for Suncor and Ultramar are clear. They’re the last two refineries in Quebec. In 2010 Shell’s plant in Montreal closed and 500 jobs were lost. But of course with oil those are never the only stakes. Quebec environmental groups were pretty sure they had a friend in Marois. Already they’re wondering what happened. “She told us she wanted a strategy for reducing dependance on oil,” Equiterre’s Steven Guilbault told Le Devoir’s environment reporter Alexandre Shields, whose reporting on all these developments has been diligent. Now, Guilbault said, there’s nothing about an oil-reduction strategy, and a lot about pipelines. Who’s on these committees Marois has struck with Redford and Alward? Will their reports be public?

The longer you look at Big Oil’s recent moves in Quebec, the more intriguing coincidences you see. Recall that Marois and Redford first met on Nov. 22. That was the day Joe Oliver, the federal natural resources minister, visited the Ultramar plant in Lévis. He told reporters the Alberta oil, if it makes it that far east, would “replace higher-priced foreign oil . . . from countries such as Algeria, Angola and the United Kingdom.” I’m told the Quebec government observed the coverage of Oliver’s visit closely. What they saw was that coverage concentrated not on the prospect of dirty Alberta oil ravaging Quebec’s virtue, but on the prospect (hardly guaranteed in any event) of cheaper gas at the pump.

Oliver has been in Quebec at least once a month since November for activities designed to help the oil patch and the PQ get along.

Of course, the oil patch likes to make friends. A month after Marois and Redford met, Enbridge announced it was buying a half stake in the 150-megawatt Massif du Sud windmill farm southeast of Quebec City. The windmill farm was developed by Electricité de France. Enbridge’s share cost it $170 million. The windmills are across the St. Lawrence River from Pauline Marois’s riding.

Albertans and Quebecers really need to stop hurling insults at one another. They’re forming the most intimately connected business partnership in Confederation. A year ago a Quebec think tank reported that the Caisse de dépôt, which invests the Quebec Pension Plan’s assets, held $5.4 billion in oil sands assets, more than double its holdings in all Quebec companies combined. The Caisse has done its math. Marois is doing hers. A prosperous Alberta keeps Canada’s equalization system going, but why wait for equalization?

All of this has many implications. Here’s one. Tom Mulcair is the former Quebec environment minister who’s staked the NDP’s future on a classic confrontation between Quebec’s environmental virtue and Alberta’s profligacy. What does he do if the two provinces become partners?