Danny Williams has gone where many fear to tread these days, not only wading into the debate over the proposed $6-billion Northern Gateway pipeline but signalling his support for B.C. Premier Christy Clark in her public feud with Alberta's Alison Redford.
"I like someone standing up for their province," the former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador told The Globe and Mail. "It's just a question of what the terms are. There has to be a way for British Columbia to find a benefit."
Mr. Williams was – and still is – a passionate supporter of his province. His epic battle with the Harper government in the 2008 federal election over a broken promise about excluding non-renewable resources from the equalization formula cost the Conservatives seats.
Coincidentally, as he was weighing into this feud, his nemesis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was avoiding it. "I am not going to get into a hypothetical argument or discuss hypothetical revenues," the Prime Minister said at an event at a Vancouver school Tuesday.
He said he has spoken to Ms. Clark and other premiers about her demands for a "fair share" in the pipeline project, but would not comment on the conversations. Rather, he emphasized the value of awaiting the outcome of a joint review panel on the proposed pipeline. Still, he was clear that he sees projects such as Gateway as vital to Canada's and B.C.'s economic interests because of the province's role as the country's Asia-Pacific gateway.
Meanwhile, Mr. Williams's successor, Kathy Dunderdale, would not comment on her former premier's remarks.
But Mr. Williams, who retired in 2010 after seven years in office, has some sympathy for Ms. Clark's position. "... I don't think we should hold people to ransom. I think we should find ways to co-operate," he said. "And I think maybe that's what Christy is saying. Maybe Christy is just saying, 'You're not going to get a free ride but we do want to have a piece of your action.' "
Ms. Clark has been under fire for her demands that Alberta give B.C. its "fair share" for the potential environmental risk it would take in having the pipeline carry heavy oil to the B.C. port of Kitimat. Although she has not spelled out exactly how much she is seeking, she has said she wants the federal and Alberta governments to sit down with her and negotiate. Upping the ante, Ms. Clark is threatening to scuttle the project if her demands are not met.
The Alberta government has interpreted Ms. Clark's demands as wanting a share of energy royalties. Ms. Redford has said that is absolutely not on.
Despite Mr. Williams's support, he does differ with Ms. Clark on the broader issue of a pan-Canadian energy strategy. He is a long-time advocate of sharing and pooling energy resources across the country.
At the recent premiers' conference in Halifax, Ms. Clark refused to sign on to a national energy strategy because of her dispute with Alberta. In fact, there were fears that she was going to "pull a Danny" and walk out of the meetings. (Mr. Williams had famously stormed out of a federal-provincial meeting in 2004.) But she did not.
Although the dispute between British Columbia and Alberta threatened to overtake the premiers' conference agenda, Ms. Clark was sidelined as the other premiers, led by Alberta's Ms. Redford and Newfoundland's Ms. Dunderdale, vowed to forge ahead on a national energy strategy.
"I think this whole trans-Canadian energy issue is a huge one," said Mr. Williams, who as premier had pushed for one. He had served as the chair of a premiers' committee on an energy plan, which he presented at the annual premiers' meeting in 2007.
"I think we are so wealthy and so abundant in energy that we really should have a national plan that links us coast to coast and allows us to move this energy around to wherever we need to get it."
But he knows how difficult this is to achieve. He had a long-standing dispute with Quebec over hydro power. "For me, it's not just about an oil or a gas pipeline, it's about a hydro pipeline, too, a hydro-transmission facility," he said.
He had wanted a hydro corridor going from east to west, but Quebec didn't want that to happen, although the other provinces were onside, Mr. Williams said. He said Quebec's view was "selfish."
"They've got lots of power," he said. "I think it works for everybody if we are all working together and pooling our resources and maximizing them."
Mr. Williams believes that's better for the country and the individual provinces. He points to last week's agreement between his province and Nova Scotia on the proposed multibillion-dollar Muskrat Falls hydro project as an example of co-operation between two provinces.
The project will see undersea cables transmitting power from Labrador's Lower Churchill River to Newfoundland and then to Nova Scotia. Excess power could be sold to New England. The project is designed to allow Nova Scotia to reduce its dependence on coal – and has the added benefit of not involving Quebec.
"I am a big believer in full and total co-operation," Mr. Williams said. "There has to be negotiation. There has to be some to and fro and give and take. But at the end of the day, the country as a whole needs a proper energy plan that really properly allocates all of its resources."