Oil woes worry premiers as they argue Ottawa is slow to act

No commitment? No problem. The lack of a firm answer about requested help from the federal government won’t stop Alberta Premier Rachel Notley from demanding a solution to her province's oil crisis.

'We're going to keep doing the work that we have been doing,' Alberta Premier Rachel Notley tells The House

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley came out of the first ministers meeting in Montreal this week with confidence to continue asking the federal government for support over the oil sector. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

No commitment? No problem.

The lack of a firm answer about requested help from the federal government won't stop Alberta Premier Rachel Notley from demanding a solution to her province's oil crisis.

It's far from her ideal outcome. But during the first ministers meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some of cabinet in Montreal on Friday, Notley said she felt the door open slightly — giving her confidence in continuing the fight.

"We're going to keep doing the work that we have been doing," she told CBC Radio's The House after coming up empty-handed on a deal with Ottawa. "We've made a very clear ask."

After months of uncertainty created by an inability to get oil out of the province in an efficient way, Notley's ask has evolved into three specific requests, including relief for oilpatch workers and help obtaining rail cars to move oil.

Pipes are seen at the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain facility in Edmonton. Alberta has been somewhat at odds with Ottawa after a federal court ruling in August quashed the planned expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The stalled expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that would deliver more Alberta oil to the coast of British Columbia means that crude is predominantly being transported by rail now.

Notley has asked for federal assistance to acquire rail cars to get more oil to market, since the supply being produced currently exceeds the capacity to transport it.

The governing Liberals have given her no specific answer on a path forward, but she said she remains optimistic, even though it sometimes requires her getting her "elbows up."

Millions lost each day

It's gotten so bad that Notley this week announced a temporary 8.7 per cent cut in oil production to increase prices — the equivalent of 325,000 barrels per day.

The curtailment ends at the end of 2019, when Enbridge's new Line 3 pipeline is scheduled to start operating.

The government estimates Alberta is losing $80 million a day due to this discount, but Notley says the alternative is losing billions a year as Alberta oil is sold for pennies on the dollar for international oil.

Even if the federal government isn't addressing the matter with urgency, Notley said her other provincial and territorial counterparts seemed to, as there was "almost complete consensus" around the table that something needed to be done to tackle the problem.

'Touching' response from other premiers

Dominic LeBlanc, the federal intergovernmental affairs minister, said Notley was looking to apply a short-term solution to a medium-term problem — and that the government has communicated they are ready to research the purchase of rail cars.  

He also defended his government's slow approach to Alberta's suggestion.

"That is a significant decision for any government to make to use taxpayer dollars in an industry like the rail industry," he said.

Despite the delay, LeBlanc said they're committed to being part of a solution.

LeBlanc inherited his post a few months ago, at a fractious time in federal-provincial relations. Between the Liberals' controversial price on carbon and issues with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, there were enough problems in 2018 to anger almost every premier.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was "touching" to see the premiers agree about rushing to Canadians' aid, this time in Alberta. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In the lead-up to the meeting, Ontario Premier Doug Ford threatened to walk out of it, and there were concerns that some premiers might not attend at all. That walkout never materialized, and neither did an expected blowout over the absence of conversations about oil on the meeting's agenda.

The tone was rosy by the end of the talks — at least publicly — with Trudeau even calling it "touching" to see a consensus around the table when it comes to rushing to the aid of Canadians, in this case in Alberta.

He said he spoke with Notley and they agreed to work together, and a number of proposals are consequently being considered.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, who is a traditional pipeline enemy of Notley's, said he was sympathetic to the amount of money and jobs currently bleeding out of Alberta.

"The numbers are undeniable," he said.

However, he admitted the pipeline ordeal is a difficult one to solve when it appears the way out for now is through British Columbia.

About the Author

Elise von Scheel

Elise von Scheel is a reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. She is currently an associate producer for The House. Before joining the politics team, she was a reporter for CBC News in Ottawa. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.