Higgs admits he may have crossed line promoting Scheer on taxpayers' dime
$5,000 spent to fly Blaine Higgs, staffer to Saskatchewan to promote energy sector
Premier Blaine Higgs says he may have crossed a partisan line with comments he made during a taxpayer-funded trip to Saskatchewan to promote pipelines and the energy sector.
Higgs estimates that the government spent about $5,000 to fly him and a staffer to the province last weekend to attend a rally in the town of Moosomin, where he endorsed federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as a future prime minister.
The event was one stop on a cross-country trek by a caravan of oil industry supporters and activists who argue the federal Liberal government isn't supporting Western Canada's energy sector.
"We can't seem to get it across to the federal government, but we have a future prime minister here who's going to get it across to the federal government," Higgs said at the podium, gesturing at Scheer.
Higgs spoke to support the caravan and to talk up his desire to revive the cancelled Energy East pipeline.
But his endorsement of Scheer appears at odds with the practice that government-funded trips not be overtly partisan.
"I guess that's a valid point," Higgs told reporters Thursday when asked about the comment. "Should I be doing that or not? I've generally said what I believe in and what I think is going to get results.
He added: "I'll probably keep doing that and I'll be governed by what I feel is right for the province and what's necessary to move our country forward. Maybe I'll cross the edge a time or two. It's possible."
Liberal MLA Roger Melanson said Higgs should not have been promoting Scheer ahead of the federal election during a trip funded by taxpayers.
"There's a really fine line between going to Saskatchewan and wanting to promote pipelines, and going to Saskatchewan with all the Conservative leadership of the country," he said.
"I don't think taxpayers should pay for any trips that are perceived as partisan for the Conservative party of New Brunswick or even of Canada."
Green Leader David Coon said the premier's partisan remark is at odds with the image he has tried to cultivate.
"He says he's not a politician, and politics gets in the way of progress. … but at the same time he's very committed to working with [Conservative premiers] for a pipeline that goes against climate change action."
Higgs spoke for about six minutes at the rally in Moosomin, talking about his knowledge of the energy sector gained during three decades at Irving Oil and his desire to see more Canadian oil refined at the company's Saint John refinery.
He also mentioned former potash mineworkers he'd met who had moved to Saskatchewan for work and told the crowd he'd be visiting one of his daughters who now lives in Moose Jaw.
The convoy left Red Deer, Alta., on Feb. 14, bound for Ottawa. It was billed as a pro-oil sector caravan, organized by opponents of a federal bill that would overhaul the federal approval process for major energy projects.
Some participants have also adopted anti-immigration rhetoric, something Higgs said Thursday he wanted no part of.
"I'm certainly not in that camp," he said. "That's not the reason I was there at all. We're not supporting any of that activity. Our focus was purely on the energy sector."
Moosomin was chosen as the location of the rally because it was where a major lateral line would have fed crude oil from Manitoba and the United States into the main Energy East line.
Melanson said if Higgs wants to promote the revival of Energy East, he should be travelling to Quebec, where opposition to the project remains strong. Higgs said he plans to do that.
TransCanada Corp. cancelled its Energy East application to the National Energy Board in 2017, citing new environmental criteria the board planned to apply to the project.
Former pipeline executives and economists say the business case for the project is now dead, though Higgs continues to talk about finding a way to revive it.
TransCanada is now applying for approval to ship larger volumes of natural gas from Alberta to Eastern Canada. That would use up much of the excess pipeline capacity it would have converted to ship crude oil as part of Energy East.
Given that Energy East was cancelled, "I don't blame them a bit," Higgs said Thursday. "I would be doing exactly the same thing."
But he said if New Brunswick can develop its own shale gas industry, something he's encouraging, that could once again free up capacity on TransCanada's line for oil shipments.
The Liberals officially support Energy East but Melanson said that with TransCanada moving on to other projects, Higgs's lobbying may be futile.
"We can't stop the premier from trying to promote it, but at the end of the day we'll need to have a private-sector proponent that wants to invest the dollars for this pipeline to be built, and today we don't," he said.