Thomson: Sparks fly in pipeline pursuit

By Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal February 7, 2013

When David Alward toured the oilsands this week, the CBC offered a story on its web page with an unintentionally ironic headline: New Brunswick Premier woos Alberta on pipeline proposal.

New Brunswick is wooing Alberta?

Anyone who follows Alberta’s desperate mission to get more bitumen to market knows that in the boudoir of Canadian petro-politics, Alberta is not exactly playing hard to get. In fact, when it comes to seeking partners to help build more pipelines, Alberta is something of a brazen little hussy.

No wooing is necessary.

Nevertheless, the Alberta government did get a little giddy when Alward came a-calling. He was here to talk about a pipeline to ship Alberta’s bitumen to New Brunswick for upgrading at the huge Irving Oil refinery in Saint John. Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk took Alward on a guy date to a pub to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, got him a tour of the oilsands on Monday and invited him to a joint news conference with Premier Alison Redford on Tuesday.

Alberta rolled out the red carpet because it’s not as though a lot of politicians are beating down Alberta’s door these days to talk about pipelines. British Columbia is decidedly cool to the idea of permitting the Northern Gateway pipeline to pump Alberta’s bitumen to Kitimat for shipment to Asia. And President Barack Obama is having commitment issues on the Keystone XL pipeline to move bitumen to the Gulf Coast.

So having a politician show up on Alberta’s doorstep with the political equivalent of a dozen roses in hand had the provincial government’s heart all aflutter. For Redford, it was a good news story after weeks of negative headlines about “bitumen bubbles” and looming budget deficits. Here was a fellow premier who didn’t just pay lip service to her notion of a Canadian Energy Strategy; here was a premier who supported Redford in a very concrete way to get Alberta’s bitumen to a “tidewater” port.

“The dynamics in New Brunswick right now is that literally the three major political parties in our province have all come forward saying we support the idea of the western pipeline to Saint John,” Alward said. “We support what that would mean for New Brunswick and very importantly for Canada as well.”

Redford can only imagine what it would be like to have the opposition parties in Alberta agree with her on anything. The NDP and Liberals, for example, argue we should do more upgrading and refining here, and then ship value-added products such as petroleum to other markets. The energy industry doesn’t agree, saying upgraders and refineries are terribly expensive and uneconomic, particularly when there are underused refineries on the Gulf Coast, Montreal and Saint John.

Both Alward and Redford make a solid argument for shipping Alberta’s bitumen to the East Coast, especially if the Northern Gateway is never built. Another possibility is expanding Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, but that’s also facing stiffening opposition.

Shipping to New Brunswick would boost the price of Alberta’s bitumen and provide a Canadian-made feedstock for New Brunswick’s petrochemical industry.

It’s not as though industry has to build a whole new pipeline network to move product east. One scenario would convert an existing, underused natural gas pipeline; another would see Enbridge expand use of its existing system and reverse the flow of a line that now ships oil from Montreal to southern Ontario. That scenario will still need a new pipeline to ship the bitumen from Montreal to Saint John. That’s where Quebec could yet prove to be as much of an impediment to the West-East pipeline as B.C. is to Northern Gateway.

And then you have the environmental opposition, so effective against both Keystone and Northern Gateway, slowly beginning to target any notion of a West-East pipeline.

The only thing certain here is that Alberta will not have an easy time getting more of its bitumen to market, even if the two ends of an Alberta-New Brunswick pipeline are keenly in favour of the project. It’s all the stuff in between that could gum up the works.

Still, for a few moments on Tuesday, Redford was basking in some good news as she shared the stage with Alward. And then she pulled the rug out from under her own feet.

Redford used the pipeline news conference to take an off-topic shot at Alberta’s doctors currently in contract negotiations with the province: “The only way that we would ever be able to find more money to pay doctors would be to do something like introduce a health-care premium.”

For her troubles, the premier was rewarded with front-page headlines that ignored Alward’s visit and focused on the possibility of a return to health-care premiums.

There are times Redford seems to be her own worst enemy. You have to wonder what Alward was thinking. Here he was coming to Alberta to court Redford and there she was going out of her way to court more bad press.

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