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The dispute between the Alberta and BC NDP governments over the Kinder Morgan pipeline is reaching new depths of ridiculousness. After enacting an embargo on BC wine, Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP government has passed a law giving itself the power to halt fuel traffic to BC. This is all in a bid to bully the BC NDP/Green coalition government to drop its legal challenges to the $7.4-billion pipeline project. Notley has become the most vociferous mouthpiece for the big oil corporations. The reality of the situation is that these belligerent actions make it less likely that the pipeline will ever be built. By siding with the oil bosses, who hate the NDP, Notley will never get to dig a pipeline - instead she is digging her political grave.

The victory of the Alberta NDP in 2015 was a political earthquake, the likes of which are only seen in generations. The Alberta working class had become sick of the unfettered rule of the Progressive Conservatives, and their oil-baron backers, and were looking for fundamental change. One of the key demands of the ANDP was a review of oil royalties. One comparative calculation showed that in 2013 Norway realized revenues of $87.69 per barrel of oil, Alaska $38.54, and Alberta just $4.38. The province was plunged into crisis with the sudden collapse in the price of oil, and the question was, who would pay for the crisis: the oil corporations or the working class? A massive red-baiting campaign was unleashed against the ANDP via all the major media outlets. The line was that the government shouldn’t touch the god-given profits of the oil corporations, and instead should attack public sector workers.

Initially the ANDP tried to appease all sides. They racked up billions of dollars in deficit spending rather than get the money from royalties or from austerity. But they could not square the circle and have been forced to pick a side. Just like Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in the 1990’s, Notley has picked the side of the bosses against the workers. The royalty review resulted in no new revenue. Subsequently, the Alberta government announced plans to give the oil companies up to $1 billion over 8 years, in the form of $800 million in loan guarantees and $200 million in grants, to build new bitumen upgrading facilities. This was followed by another announcement of $1 billion stimulus for the petrochemical industry “to diversify”.

Picture from cbc.ca

On the other side of the class divide the Notley government is effectively enforcing a public sector wage freeze. The 2018 budget deficit is still $8.8-billion, and this is assuming that pipelines get built. The ANDP has set itself the task of being the kinder, gentler, voice of the oil bosses in the hope that this will win them support. However it will do no such thing. The Calgary executives will never trust the NDP, while working class Albertans will be demoralized by the cutbacks. Additionally, the NDP no longer benefits from a split vote between the PC’s and Wildrose, who have joined forces in the United Conservative Party (UCP). Alberta heads to the polls next year and if the ballot question is “who will support big oil?” then the Conservatives are assured victory.

The BC government is opposed to the pipeline for very clear reasons. The 1,150km pipeline will triple the amount of diluted bitumen to the Burnaby terminal on the west coast, and increase tanker traffic by seven times. The economic benefit to BC will be limited and temporary, while the environmental risk is significant. After the pipeline is constructed, there will be almost no net jobs gained. The currently existing Trans Mountain pipeline suffered 82 spills during the period 1961-2016. Tankers have to pass through a very narrow channel to reach the ocean, and any spillage would endanger tens of thousands of fisheries and tourism jobs. The potential impact is higher than the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Map detailing proposed route of Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline
Proposed route of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline

Not surprisingly, the majority of First Nations communities along the route are opposed. They are not keen to have their water supplies contaminated when many reserves are already living under longstanding boil water advisories. Some native bands have done deals with Kinder Morgan and now support the pipeline in exchange for compensation. The Texas-based company is trying to use this as a stick to ignore the concerns of others, however even the pro-pipeline native groups believe that there is a duty to reach an agreement with the others and First Nations wishes cannot simply be ignored.

The BC NDP is not about to step back from its opposition to the pipeline any time soon. They were elected to government on this demand, and their coalition with the BC Greens means abandoning this promise would be political suicide. Rather than blocking the pipeline via legislation, which the province probably does not have the right to do, they have taken the approach of enforcing environmental regulations through the courts. Whether or not they win is immaterial, as the court process, including appeals, delays things to such an extent as to make the pipeline uneconomic. In response Kinder Morgan has suspended non-essential work on the pipeline to mitigate “shareholder risk”, and have said they will walk away from the project if the uncertainty is not settled by May 31st.

Faced with the prospect of cancellation, the “kind and gentle” facade of the Alberta NDP has been dropped to reveal the raw anger of the oil companies that are used to absolute control. The petty ban on BC wine was lifted, in favour of the big threat to restrict fuel shipments to BC. The fact that there is now an inter-provincial trade war in Canada, with greater potential impact than Trump cancelling NAFTA, is astounding. The main economic point of bourgeois democratic revolutions against feudalism was free trade within the nation, and now this basic plank of capitalism is beginning to break down within a G7 country!

In addition to the fuel embargo, Notley raised the prospect of some sort of bail out, investment, or even nationalization of the $7.4-billion pipeline. What is even more amazing is that Jason Kenny, the pro-privatization, anti-corporate welfare, pro “small government”, leader of the Alberta United Conservatives came out in support of the plan. This just goes to show that when First Nations want clean drinking water (estimated cost $3.2-billion) the cupboard is bare, while if a Texas-based oil corporation is worried about shareholder risk there are unlimited funds. It is hard to imagine a clearer example of “socialism for the rich”!

The oil embargo is not likely to withstand a legal challenge if it is ever enacted, but that is not the point for either side. The threat of using it, combined with the associated uncertainty, would likely cause BC gas prices to spike for a period. Such belligerent action might look good to the Alberta electorate that has been whipped up behind the oil barons due to lack of an alternative, but it would have the opposite effect on the BC population. Such measures harden opinions on both sides and make the building of a pipeline even less likely. With all this talk of courts and constitutions the main players have forgotten that even if the corporation wins everything, they have to contend with protesters on the ground. Every time Notley, Kenny, and Trudeau ramp up the rhetoric, more people rally to the struggle against big oil. 

At the time of writing about 200 people have been arrested for violating a court imposed exclusion zone around Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby terminal. In an attempt to intimidate the protesters, which include local NDP MP Kennedy Stewart and Green Party leader Elizabeth May, they have been charged with criminal contempt rather than civil disobedience. It appears that the prosecutors have not studied history. Those wishing to stifle a movement should know that creating martyrs merely inspires more to join the struggle.

In addition to the urban protests there will be dozens of blockades where construction impacts First Nations reserves and unceded traditional territory. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, declared that the pipeline will never be built. Analogies were made to Standing Rock in the US, and the Oka crisis in the 1990s. The federal government would have to deploy troops over one thousand kilometers of pipeline to ensure construction. This is not feasible either politically or economically.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been critiqued from all sides. The pro-pipeline side has accused him of being too soft on BC, saying that he should threaten to withhold transfer payments. This elicited a swift rebuke from Quebec against the prospect of the federal government taking such heavy-handed action against the right of any province to regulate within its jurisdiction. Trudeau has vowed that the pipeline will be built and declared it is in the “national interest.” But he has to tread carefully, because the Liberals have 18 seats in BC versus only 4 in Alberta. Trudeau’s BC seats could all come under threat from the federal NDP, which opposes the pipeline.

Trudeau appeared to understand the limited usefulness of the belligerent response, which just heightens opposition. In an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement he brokered a meeting with Horgan and Notley. But this meeting had no measurable effect, and Trudeau was attacked for not inviting a First Nations representative. First Nations rights on unceded territory are constitutionally protected, so failure to consult will potentially invalidate any agreement. The hypocrisy of the Liberals is astounding. This is a party that has gone out of its way to trumpet its supposed respect for First Nations, and religiously gives land acknowledgements before every meeting, but when it actually matters, indigenous rights are thrown in the garbage.

The claim that Kinder Morgan is in the national interest is becoming increasingly symbolic and divorced from reality. Only 16% of Alberta oil would be able to access the pipeline, so its impact would be limited whether or not it is built. Some have even questioned the economic case for the pipeline, as global oil prices trend down and capacity increases in the Gulf of Mexico for higher quality US oil.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh should be in an ideal position to capitalize from the Liberal misfortune, but instead has managed to irritate all sides. The federal NDP is opposed to the pipeline, and Burnaby MP Kennedy Stewart has been on the front lines of the protest, but Singh has made himself look ridiculous by trying to find a path between BC and Alberta. Sitting on the fence is never a comfortable position, and can even be damaging to one’s health! Jagmeet Singh proposed that all parties fast track the questions of jurisdiction to the Supreme Court as a reference case. This was unacceptable to Notley and Trudeau as it would still delay the process beyond the May 31st deadline. But it would also weaken BC’s position undermining their leverage in the courts. It also neglects the opinions of First Nations and those blockading the Burnaby terminal. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of the pipeline, that obviously does not make it the right thing to do.

Such legalistic constitutionalism is typical of reformists and ignores the reality of struggle in the real world. The right wing and the corporations do not respect legal niceties, they habitually ignore native land title, they state their desires from their class perspective, and the law is merely another weapon to use or abuse as they see fit. This pipeline does not solve the jobs crisis in BC or Alberta, does not respect the opinions of indigenous communities and others affected, and is a serious environmental danger to the water people drink and jobs that people rely upon. Kinder Morgan should be opposed regardless of what a bunch of judges have to say.

What is the Marxist approach towards Kinder Morgan and other pipeline projects? Marxists are not anti-development. When looking at any project it is necessary to keep a number of issues in mind and weigh them accordingly. 1) The impact it will have on good union jobs. We would tend to support development that provides jobs with union representation and good conditions, and oppose those that contract out production to low wage non-union jurisdictions. This project leads to exporting raw product to low wage refineries in Asia. 2) The impact on the environment. The prospects of a spill that pollutes inland waterways or the coast is real and significant. These spills would in turn damage fisheries and tourism jobs. The environmental case is clear. 3) The consent of the affected local populations. Populations facing an environmental risk must be negotiated with to receive compensation, guaranteed employment, and a clear plan to prevent and clean up any spills. This demand is especially salient for indigenous communities whose wishes have been regularly ignored as their land and water has been polluted without care or compensation. Kinder Morgan has supposedly set aside $30-million a year over 10 years, but this is peanuts compared with the money they are raking in. It is not surprising that the majority of First Nations are opposed, along with the people of Burnaby, and that the BC NDP and Green parties formed a government promising to stop the pipeline. There is no consent.

However, Marxists do not agree with the slogan of “Shut down the tar sands,” or “No jobs on a dead planet”. Albertan workers, struggling with mortgage and car payments, trying to put their kids through college, rightfully see such slogans as coming from out of touch middle class downtown greenies, who do not care if working class people are forced into bankruptcy. Any slogan that doesn’t guarantee the employment of impacted workers is bound to drive these workers into the arms of the oil bosses and political reactionaries like Jason Kenny.

The Alberta NDP has totally capitulated to the oil corporations and in so doing have signed their death warrant. This was in no way a foregone conclusion, and even the former leader of the Alberta Liberals bemoaned the fact that Notley used to be a strident critic of big oil. But reformists always look for the middle-of-the-road option that does not fundamentally alter current power structures. Faced with the collapse in oil prices, a massive spike in unemployment, and a red-baiting political campaign against an increase in oil royalties, no middle road was available. Either do the bidding of the master class or start a struggle to overthrow them.

The road not travelled by the Alberta NDP was to mobilize the working class that voted NDP to break with the dictatorship of big oil. We need a program that will both protect jobs and the environment. The Holy Grail of building pipelines to return to the good old days will never be found. The economic case for such pipelines is suspect at best, and even if they are built that does not mean a return to high levels of employment. Technological change means that the corporations can pump more oil with far fewer workers. The only people who would benefit from pipeline profits would be the fat cats sitting in Calgary skyscrapers. The only thing that will trickle down is spilled oil into local waterways.

The corporations that pull the strings in Alberta should never have been allowed to throw so many workers on the scrap heap. But the only way to stop them from doing so is to take the corporations over. The price for such nationalization has already been paid dozens of times over by decades of below market royalty rates. No compensation to the fat cats is necessary. The entire energy sector must be expropriated under the control of the workers themselves to develop a socialist environmental plan that guarantees employment and sustainability. Alberta bitumen is a dirty form of fuel that society should move away from. But this will never be done under private ownership. When working class people control the energy sector they will be able to plan a transition to cleaner forms of energy that doesn’t endanger employment. If the benefits from energy production are genuinely shared, such as by ending the on-reserve water crisis, or providing free education, an end to the public sector wage freeze, or a massive housing construction program, instead of private profit and corporate tax cuts, then communities in BC and elsewhere will be more than willing to negotiate. This program is revolutionary, but it is the only genuine alternative to capitulation.

Given the current situation, it seems unlikely that the pipelines will be built, and likely that the ANDP will be defeated in the May 2019 election. They will be used and discarded by the corporations like an oily rag. Then Alberta workers will have to suffer under the boot of the United Conservatives of Jason Kenny. Even the partial reforms of the Notley years will be put on the chopping block. But this will not be a return to the 43 year old PC dynasty. The working class, trade unionists, and NDP members will learn from both victory and defeat. Defensive class struggle will be on the agenda. Hopefully the best layers of the movement will come to understand the failures of Notley’s capitulation and prepare a new regroupment and offensive. This experience is merely the end of the beginning, and not the beginning of the end. The fight between workers and bosses in Alberta is set to go through many tumultuous years with the opportunity for socialist ideas to come forward in the province. And the small but growing forces of Marxism are set to play a role in this process.

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