The premier of Alberta has a meeting planned on the touchy subject of interprovincial oil flows — and, this time, the meeting's with a potentially combative customer in Quebec.
Alison Redford has struggled with a pipeline controversy in the west, which has caused interprovincial tensions. Now she'll discuss one in the east with Pauline Marois, premier of a Parti Quebecois government whose raison d'etre is to remove Quebec from Canada.
Marois announced to reporters in Quebec City that she will meet with Redford at the start Thursday of a premiers' conference in Halifax.
She said she wants to know more about the Enbridge pipeline.
"We will have an exchange on the details of the project," Marois said.
"The first thing I want to be able to do is understand exactly what Alberta would like in this particular case. (And) ask a certain number of questions because obviously, and (provincial Environment Minister Daniel Breton) said it, this could have an impact on our environment. So we have a right to raise some questions."
The plan would reverse the flow of an existing pipeline to bring Canadian oil, to Canadian customers in the eastern half of the country.
Marois softening stance before first premiers meeting
The project is being reviewed by the National Energy Board. And Quebec's environment minister, who until recently was a staunch environmental activist, has expressed alarm about the project and said Quebec wants to launch its own review.
That minister quickly tempered some of his remarks.
Marois appears to have steered her government slightly away from its more activist positions, toward a more market-friendly stance, with a budget this week that shelved a number of her election promises while laying out plans for a balanced budget and debt repayment.
Marois is promising to have constructive relations with her counterparts in this, her first interprovincial meeting, since she won the Sept. 4 provincial election.
But she will make one thing clear: She's no Jean Charest. The recently defeated premier, an ardent federalist who once aspired to be Canada's prime minister, created the premiers' organization that is staging this week's meeting, called the Council of the Federation.
Marois says she will remind her colleagues of where her priorities lie, while remaining polite.
"You know is I've always taken a very cordial approach with people I work with. The fundamental difference is I will remind my colleagues that we are a sovereignist government that will defend Quebec's interests, tooth and nail," she said.
"That doesn't preclude having very good relations with the premiers of other provinces. Because even in an independent Quebec state, Quebec will continue to have the rest of Canada as its principal partner."
She also noted that with a minority government, her ability to pursue her sovereignty agenda is somewhat limited, anyway.
Marois also criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper for avoiding the premiers' meeting — which is supposed to address economic issues. She called it a strange choice from a politician who repeatedly describes the economy as his top priority.
Slightly lower prices, but concerns about oilsands supply
As for the pipeline, it would potentially result in slightly lower gasoline prices in the eastern parts of the country.
North American crude has been fetching a lower price than international varieties because it lacks adequate access to coastal waters. Burgeoning supplies from the oilsands and U.S. fields haven't been able to find their way to the most lucrative markets.
Most refineries in the eastern part of the continent are configured to handle light, sweet crude imported from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world, rather than the tarry, heavy stuff produced in the oilsands.
Some fear the prospect of oilsands crude — derided as "dirty oil" in some quarters — eventually filling those eastbound pipes.
"There are activists who are worried about dirty oil and not too many people wonder 'What oil are you using?' Is the oil from Venezuela and Nigeria and Iraq cleaner than Alberta oil? Are they doing better in emissions? Are they more environmentally concerned? Probably not," said Bob Schulz, a professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.