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A court has ruled in favour of Trans Mountain Pipeline, but power of social license is yet to be tested

Crowd taking part in Salt Spring-Kinder Morgan action. Photo: Christina Marshall/Leadnow Canada/Flickr

The Federal Court of Appeal's decision Friday not to hear an appeal by the government of British Columbia and several B.C. municipalities opposed to a ruling of the National Energy Board that allows Kinder Morgan Canada to ignore local permits and bylaws undoubtedly illustrates the strength of Alberta's legal arguments.

Whether or not that turns out to be the slam-dunk political victory many people in Alberta are now declaring it to be is far less clear.

"It wasn't that we won the decision, it was the court wouldn't even hear it," Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley rejoiced Monday. "So it was a pretty definitive victory for the pipeline and for the people of Alberta and Canada."

This is fair enough as far as it goes.

But whether Albertans like it or not -- and we can safely assume that by and large they don't -- Notley nevertheless got it right back in the day when she argued that winning social license from our fellow Canadian citizens was a necessary part of Alberta's efforts to market oil derived from our province's vast bitumen sand deposits.

Our Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was right too when he famously said, "even though governments grant permits, ultimately only communities grant permission."

Canada's Conservatives always denied that this was so. It was too much work when you face articulate opponents, ready to do their homework, making a strong case for an alternative view. The only sensible way to proceed, they argued, was to shove Alberta's pipelines up its opponents' noses.

This seemed ironic, as they'd not had much success themselves with that strategy, but as soon as pipeline opponents in Coastal British Columbia were influential enough to cause the defeat of a government favourable to the Trans Mountain Pipeline, most of the fine talk about social license by Liberals and New Democrats went out the window too.

It's all about who wins in court now. As Premier Notley tweeted Monday: "To date, Alberta has won every case brought against Trans Mountain. Your Alberta government will not back down until this pipeline is built and the national interest is secured."

Face it, while New Democrats in Alberta and Liberals in Ottawa may continue to hold a less dangerous environmental worldview, Conservatives have a point when they crow that Notley and Trudeau have accepted their contempt for the wishes of communities along the pipeline route.

At any rate, the Alberta NDP's and the federal Liberals' commitment to social license turned out to be a kilometre wide and a centimetre deep in the face of moves by B.C.'s NDP government to slow the pipeline expansion megaproject, and by the local municipalities to throw roadblocks in its way.

Supporters of the United Conservative Party Opposition here in Alberta keep claiming we would have gotten to this point sooner if there'd been none of this social license chatter in the first place.

It may turn out, however, that we only got as far as we did because of it.

Indeed, it is quite possible with the abandonment of the social license strategy by its more progressive advocates we will soon return to the serial failures that characterized the decade of joint Conservative rule in Ottawa and Edmonton.

Rest assured that the opponents of Kinder Morgan's pipeline plans, and indeed of the whole bitumen-mining project in north central Alberta, are not giving up the fight.

Despite the anger of the Alberta NDP and sinister rumblings of support from Ottawa, B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said Monday that while he was disappointed by the court's ruling, Premier John Horgan's NDP government would continue to look for new ways "to defend the interests of British Columbians against this unnecessary project."

Well, they're propped up by three Green Party MLAs, so maybe their hearts aren't in it.

But the Mayor of Burnaby, unhappy home to Kinder Morgan's Pacific Coast pipeline terminal, vows the municipality won't pay for cops to arrest protesters who defy the company's court injunction forbidding protesters to stand too close to its property.

This prompted an angry shot yesterday at Derek Corrigan from Premier Notley, and hand wringing by a columnist for the Calgary Herald, the fearless champion of the multinational petroleum industry, which may just sense the way the prevailing coastal winds are blowing.

And every day, dozens of ordinary British Columbians -- and some not so ordinary ones, like Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands and leader of the federal Green Party, and Burnaby-South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart -- quietly line up to be arrested for standing too close to the fence.

And this, my friends, is where this very political battle will be won or lost, not in the courts.

If the crowds peter out after a few days and the arrests slow to a trickle, the battle will be won, just as Notley says it already has been.

If they continue to grow, and British Columbians continue to line up to be peacefully arrested, this is when we Canadians will learn the real power of social license.

And if it gets so bad the prime minister feels he has to call out the army to push the pipeline through, as many Alberta Conservatives are already demanding, that is the day Alberta, Ottawa and the oil industry will have truly lost this fight.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Christina Marshall/Leadnow Canada/Flickr

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