Threats and power politics — Notley's big pipeline gamble

Premier Rachel Notley's bombshell announcements during the speech from the throne may result in her provoking the sort of problems she accuses British Columbia of provoking, says CBC Calgary's political panel.

'Right now, it's a threat. She's not actually turning anything off.'

At a press conference Thursday before the throne speech, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley threatened to retaliate if B.C. continues to try to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (CBC)

Premier Rachel Notley doubled down on her threat to turn off the taps to British Columbia's oil supply Thursday during her speech from the throne, but Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson reminded Albertans that at this stage of a highly political game, there's a difference between promising to do something and actually doing it.

"Right now, it's a threat," Thomson said, as part of CBC Calgary's political panel Thursday night, where he joined the Globe and Mail's Kelly Cryderman and former National Post columnist Jen Gerson to discuss Notley's provocative throne speech with CBC News host Rob Brown.

"She's not actually turning anything off."

Jen Gerson, Kelly Cryderman and Graham Thomson discuss Premier Notley's speech from the throne. (CBC)

The panel said they didn't doubt that Notley might ultimately follow through on her threat to turn off the taps to British Columbia's Lower Mainland, as retaliation for B.C.'s stalling on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, but that the outcome might sting Albertans as much as it ticks off British Columbians.

Not only could Notley's threat to also limit exports to Ontario produce political blowback from the rest of the country, but shutting down oil to B.C. would hurt the Alberta economy as much, if not more, than B.C.'s.

A page from Lougheed's playbook

For Cryderman, Notley's effort to pull a page from former premier Peter Lougheed's playbook was risky.

"If you look back at the Lougheed era, he was hitting back at something Ottawa was doing directly, he was hitting back at Bill Davis, who wanted to keep Canadian oil prices artificially low —there was a direct reason for Lougheed to be angry at Ottawa and Ontario."

"In this case, supposedly Ottawa is on Alberta's side and there could be blowback from the rest of Canada that Rachel Notley is kind of strangely including the possibility of cutting off oil exports to the rest of Canada.

"And we also heard from the oil industry today that the effects to Alberta could be severe too. Seventy per cent of the refined products that are used by the B.C. Lower Mainland are produced in Alberta — a lot of jobs, a lot of money, that's the kind of jobs Rachel Notley wants to keep in Alberta. So I think there are definite downsides to this strategy as well."

Times have changed in the oil supply, too, Cryderman pointed out.

"The other difference between now and  the Lougheed days is that then, people worried about not having enough oil," she said. "Now, we're awash in oil. The U.S. is going to become the biggest oil producer in the world. If, in a pinch, there could be tankers coming in from the U.S. to supply the Lower Mainland in a greater way."

Nullifying Jason Kenney

And as much as Notley's speech took aim at B.C. and Ottawa, all the panellists agreed it was just as much a play to nullify UCP leader Jason Kenney, by taking a tough tone with B.C. that plays well with Alberta voters.

"Jason Kenney is putting a lot of pressure on government to get tough with B.C.," said Thomson. "When Rachel Notley invoked the wine boycott, she got a real bump in the polls. I'm assuming [Alberta] people really liked what she was doing.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney issued a threat on Monday, saying if he became premier, he would cut off oil to the coast to force an end to B.C.'s stalling on the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

"Since she dropped the boycott, the opposition has said she backed down."

"She wants to maintain the momentum and seize the agenda from Jason Kenney, and now she's talking about potentially turning off the tap — not just to B.C. but also potentially to Ontario, to Central Canada — and that's aimed at getting Ottawa to step up and put the screws to B.C. and get this pipeline built."

"A lot of this is Rachel Notley playing to a domestic audience," Gerson said.

"She's blatantly stealing his idea," Gerson said. "My goodness, things have gotten so much more fun since he entered the [Alberta] political arena."

Court of Appeal ruling could be pivot point

Thomson suggested that an upcoming Court of Appeal ruling on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, expected before June, will be the pivot point for Notley.

"If it's a definite thumbs up on the pipeline, at that point the clock starts ticking," Thomson said.

For Cryderman, the move to box in Kenney is a canny one that could pay political dividends.

"He can say 'she's following me,' but the headlines will be hers," Cryderman said. "The national news is hers, the news in Alberta will be hers.

"This is something that she is boxing him in," Cryderman said. "He will have a hard time getting attention, and I think this is the NDP strategy at this point: Draw as much air away from Jason Kenney as you can.

"But you've got to wonder," she said. "How they can keep this going [like this] for another 12 to 14 months? 

"Are they going to have jaw-droppers like this for all of 2018?"

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