A View from British Columbia: Would Kenney Turn off the Taps?

Barring a seismic shift in the political landscape, Alberta voters could elect a majority of United Conservative Party (UCP) MLAs on April 16 and Jason Kenney could be sworn in as Alberta’s eighteenth Premier. This is in sharp contrast to the 36 Premiers we’ve seen in British Columbia and speaks to the very different political environments in our two neighbouring provinces.

Given the dynamics of the debate over pipelines in the two provinces, many British Columbians are wondering if a Jason Kenney led UCP government would be more likely to restrict exports of crude, natural gas and gasoline to B.C. than the current NDP government led by Premier Rachel Notley.

Kenney’s recent recommitment to restrictive tools if B.C. continues to obstruct Alberta’s energy exports certainly makes it seem like the leader is prepared to act. But we should be mindful that while the political rhetoric around this issue is on overdrive, the path that would lead Alberta to actually restricting fuel exports is long, complicated and a difficult commitment to implement given legal, financial and jurisdictional issues

The Alberta government shocked British Columbians last April when they introduced legislation to allow Alberta to restrict fuel exports. Even though the legislation was not brought into force it seemed like an escalation in what was already a heated dispute.

The B.C. government even filed a lawsuit, saying the law was unconstitutional and any disruption in the fuel supply could cause irreparable harm, both to the economy and to health and safety in remote communities that depend on a reliable fuel supply. A Calgary justice dismissed the claim, saying it was premature since the bill is not actually in force yet.

Many Albertans found B.C.’s arguments a bit rich given the B.C. government’s opposition to the Trans Mountain Expansion Project which has caused significant harm to their economy and in the opinion of some, is equally unconstitutional.

“How did it come to this?” many in B.C. wonder, especially since B.C. Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley are both from the same political party and worked together as NDP staffers in the Victoria legislature years ago. “We have been friends for 20 years,” Premier Horgan told media last spring, only to have Premier Notley throw some serious shade by responding that they were not friends and were simply acquaintances who happened to work together.

If this is how frenemies treat each other, how different would the political dynamic between Premiers Horgan and Kenney be?

Through the next few weeks of the Alberta election campaign, we’re expecting many more strong commitments to force B.C. to submit to Alberta’s right to ship its petroleum products to tidewater.

Kenney has worked hard for the past year to show Albertans he is a scrapper who will spare no effort to fight on behalf of the province’s energy sector. His list of targets includes, environmental organizations, academics, supporters of the carbon tax and any government that opposed pipeline construction. But assuming he becomes Premier, he will have to pivot quickly to governing mode.

While political rivals may enjoy portraying Kenney a simplistic populist and a bombast, he has demonstrated time-and-time again, highlighted by his time as the Federal Minister of Citizenship then Federal Minister of Social Development, his ability to play the soft-handed coalition builder.

Therefore, it seems more likely that Kenney will be able to leverage his political experience to continue to threaten B.C. while avoiding actions that could cause significant damage to both province’s economies.

Continuing to threaten “turn off the taps” will play well in Alberta and likely give Kenney leverage with other political actors in Canada.  But, actually following through on this commitment would be harder than just turning off a valve at the provincial boarder. These actions could have long-term political and economic consequences for both provinces.

However, if Kenney’s initial efforts at diplomacy fail or are met with resistance, all options might be back on the table.