Let's not call these pipeline plans 'done deals' just yet
We are now ending 2016 as we did with 2014: with an approved pipeline no one can count on being built
For those who think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement approving the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines — and rejecting Northern Gateway — has moved Canada's energy sector closer to some form of competitiveness, think again.
Two years ago, back in December 2014, we were having very similar discussions about the impact of the then-recently-approved Northern Gateway. Ironically, we are now ending 2016 as we did with 2014: with an approved pipeline no one can count on being built.
Betting on the U.S.
While Canadians have spent the last decade in the proverbial fetal position, talking (and fighting) with each other about what we should or should not do with our vast resources, the U.S has moved to expedite pro-energy development, thrown out the shackles of an antiquated oil export policy and launched themselves itself into the liquefied natural gas market over the course of just a few years. Capital markets have already placed their bets on the U.S., at least for now, and the U.S. is presently miles ahead of Canada in terms of export and development of oil and natural gas.
Nevertheless, with 99 per cent of Western Canadian crude exports going directly to the U.S., the approval Enbridge's Line 3 is great news and should play a large part, at least initially, in resuscitating Alberta's gasping economy. But we should also recall that, not that long ago, we were waiting with bated breath during President Barack Obama's prolonged delay, and inevitable pass, on the Keystone XL Pipeline.
That decision was this decade's Helms-Burton legislation — a clear middle finger to Canada, which flew in the face of NAFTA. It should have been a lesson to Canadians against piling all of our eggs in one basket, and it should have inspired the Trudeau government to take more affirmative steps to keep Northern Gateway alive. Indeed, no nation should ever limit itself to one customer.
But Canada's greatest threat to its energy and resource sectors still remains its inability to diversify its market, and now, we're about to see it play out in British Columbia. We face almost insurmountable challenges in terms of just getting the shovels in the ground in a realistic and acceptable time frame, and the more delays, the more this becomes advantageous for our single customer and biggest competitor. Canada loses close to $50 million per day from this vulnerability.
With Trudeau's commitment to a full moratorium on oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s north coast, there will be no coming back to the table for Enbridge or any further debate on how we transport unlocked resources from the area down south and out to the Asia Pacific. Also gone now is B.C. businessman David Black's dream of Kitimat Clean, a refinery that would have created thousands of jobs, hooked to the approval of Northern Gateway. It all ends in with an exhausted sigh.
The fight is on
Still, one pleasant surprise was the government's green light to to the Trans Mountain project, though as the prime minister very well knows, approval is not construction — and it's far off from completion. During his press conference Tuesday, Trudeau said that he fully backed the project, adding that he believed it to be safe for British Columbia and in the best interest of Canada. For the many opponents of the Trans Mountain pipeline, that was a sign that the "fight" is on.
This will be the ultimate test of Trudeau's political agility, and of his commitment to Canada's energy sector. We should be optimistic, but not naive: there is a possibility that Trans Mountain will suffer the same fate as Northern Gateway — hacked down before it has even begun by long legal fights, targeted campaigns and a collection of noisy political egos. This is an opportunity, finally, to give Canada's energy sector a much-needed boost, but that's all it is: a chance.