Here’s What Alberta’s Wine Boycott is Really About

No, it wasn’t a weird dream, Alberta actually announced a boycott of B.C. wine on Tuesday.

The announcement by Premier Rachel Notley is just the latest move in an inter-provincial spat over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to B.C.

It started with last week’s proposal by the B.C. government to guard against a potential oil spill. The province announced it will set up an independent scientific advisory panel to look at how diluted bitumen can be safely transported and cleaned up, if spilled.

Until the “behaviour of spilled bitumen can be better understood” B.C. will restrict increases in transportation of the substance through the province. Diluted bitumen is a mixture of thick unrefined oil from the oilsands and natural gas condensate, which acts as a thinner (and is also extremely explosive as recently witnessed in the Sanchi tanker explosion.)

Notley retaliated almost immediately, saying she was ending electricity trade negotiations with British Columbia. But yesterday the Globe and Mail revealed electricity talks had actually broken down last year.

What happened next is one of the more bizarre twists in Canadian politics in recent memory. Instead of reaching for a glass of wine, Notley came up with a real threat this time and announced the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission will immediately halt the import of all wines from its western neighbour. Apparently Albertans drank more than 17 million bottles of B.C. wine last year (for those who are counting, that’s nearly four bottles of wine for every man, woman and child in Alberta).

You could be excused for being a bit confused by how we got to this point. How did a discussion about oil spill risk and pipelines so quickly degenerate into one about non-existent electricity negotiations and alcohol? What is this really about? What’s fact and what’s fiction?

Let’s start with the oil spill risk, since that’s where all this fun began.

In 2015 the Royal Society of Canada identified seven major knowledge gaps when it comes to the risk of a diluted bitumen spill in water.

As of right now, it’s not clear whether the substance will sink or be suspended in water if spilled.

In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, spilling nearly three million litres of dilbit into a tributary of the Kalamazoo river where it mixed with sediment on the river’s bottom, triggering one of the most expensive onshore oil spill cleanup efforts in U.S. history.

Despite that, a 2012 Enbridge study found dilbit did not sink in a laboratory environment. Then in 2014, a report released by the federal government found dilbit sinks when mixed with sediment.

Didn’t someone already consider all this before approving the pipeline?

Kinda. The National Energy Board (NEB) review of the Trans Mountain project discussed the possibility of a marine oil spill and determined that the risks “are acceptable.”

But it also clearly signalled that it was making no recommendations about anything relating to shipping. Take this statement from page 18 of its recommendation report: “The Board conducted an environmental assessment of the Project (as stated above, the Board does not regulate marine shipping and the increased Project-related marine shipping is not part of the Project).”

This is how the board got around considering impacts on endangered marine species, such as the southern resident orcas.

The National Energy Board also didn’t consider the upstream greenhouse gas emissions related to producing the oil to fill the pipeline. A ministerial panel set up after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office attempted to address gaps in the original review and issued a report that posed six key questions, including: “Can construction of a new Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments?”

There is no clear understanding of how that report factored into cabinet’s decision to approve the pipeline.

All of which is to say: when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government made a “science based” decision, you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt.

But isn’t B.C. already transporting diluted bitumen?

Yes, it is, but to understand the current controversy, you need to rewind to 1953, when the original Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline started operation.

There was no oilsands development at that time, so the pipeline was transporting conventional oil. Decades later, when the pipeline began transporting diluted bitumen, there was no formal consideration given to the fact a new substance was being shipped through the pipe — hence the current controversy.

The new Trans Mountain pipeline would increase the system’s capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day.

Notley doesn’t think B.C. should have a say over what goes in the pipeline.

“They have every right to talk about protecting their environment and to work on protecting their environment and come up with best practices for marine safety and otherwise, but they don’t have the right to tell Alberta what does or does not go into that pipeline,” she told CBC.

The pipeline, Notley argues, is key to protecting Alberta’s economy from the stifling effects of a lack of export options. But while Alberta is worried about its economy, B.C. is worried about its own.

“The potential for a diluted bitumen spill already poses significant risk to our inland and coastal environment and the thousands of existing tourism and marine harvesting jobs,” B.C.’s Minister of Environment George Heyman said last week. “British Columbians rightfully expect their government to defend B.C.’s coastline and our inland waterways, and the economic and environmental interests that are so important to the people in our province.”

But, here’s the thing: the pipeline has become about much more than the oil that runs through it.

Let’s start with Indigenous rights.

Several B.C. First Nations have been steadfastly opposed to the construction of another oil pipeline through their territory. While Notley was dominating the headlines on Tuesday, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation — which is also challenging Trans Mountain in court — was launching a call for mass demonstration to protest the pipeline.

The federal and provincial governments has committed to respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the principle that First Nations be afforded the right to free, prior and informed consent over projects that impact their traditional territory.

At a town hall event in Nanaimo last week, Trudeau said: “It is in the national interest to move forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline and we will be moving forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline.”

Pipeline battles have become a proxy for the larger climate change debate.

Repeat after me: It’s an export pipeline. It’s an export pipeline. It’s an export pipeline.

Any argument that starts with “that B.C. wine was shipped in a truck using Alberta oil” or “how do you think all you West Coast hippies are going to get to work?” is fundamentally flawed.

Things Canada has control over: its own demand for oil. Its supply of oil to the world.

On the demand side, Canada’s consumption of heavy crude oil is pretty steady, according to the National Energy Board’s energy supply and demand projections to 2040.

NEB Supply and Demand Balance to 2040. The green line is exports, the red line is domestic use.

The crux of the climate debate over Trans Mountain is about the supply side: at a time in history when we know we need to leave 80 per cent of known fossil fuels in the ground to stand a chance of limiting catastrophic climate change, should we be expanding extraction and building new infrastructure to export that oil?

How you answer that question likely factors into how you feel about this pipeline brouhaha — especially if you don’t live on the coast, where an oil spill is the primary concern.

But if we don’t provide the world the oil, won’t someone else?

Some people argue this type of “supply side environmentalism” (fighting fossil fuels at their source) is flawed and that if Canada doesn’t provide the world with oil, someone else will.

Other people say this type of strategy is the only thing that created the space for any meaningful conversation to happen around oilsands and climate policy.

“Climate change is inherently difficult to organize around; it’s big, abstract, and incremental. By the same token, broad, economy-wide policies to address it are also big, abstract, and incremental,” David Roberts wrote for Vox in an excellent piece about backlash to Keystone XL climate activism.

Indeed, if you rewind just a few years, the Alberta government had very little interest in reducing the environmental impacts of the oilsands — from the liability of the toxic tailings lakes to the carbon emissions.

But now that Notley’s NDP government has made some progress on the climate file — implementing a carbon tax, putting a cap on oilsands emissions — some people think the opposition to pipelines should stop and environmentalists should move on to other strategies. That overlooks the inherent challenges of campaigning on climate change.

“If …  they can get hundreds of thousands of people in the street for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, they are welcome to try,” Roberts wrote.

Given what we know about fossil fuels and climate change “there have got to be some decisions made somewhere not to dig it up, not to build distribution infrastructure for it — to leave it in the ground,” Roberts writes.

Should that place be Alberta? Well, that depends on whether you’re an Alberta premier up for re-election in a year or if you’re a B.C. premier with a coastal economy at risk.

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