News / Vancouver

'We need to stop this wine war': B.C., Alberta trade feud could escalate quickly, experts warn

With wine banned and the oil-flow stymied, political observers worry about what's next as pipeline tensions escalate.

Mike Romand, owner of the Okanagan Estate Wine Shop at 3669 West 4th Ave., on Feb. 7, 2018

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Mike Romand, owner of the Okanagan Estate Wine Shop at 3669 West 4th Ave., on Feb. 7, 2018

The rosé-tinted glasses came off Wednesday, as B.C. and Alberta continued seeing red and whined about wine and oil.

After Alberta Premier Rachel Notley put a cork in $70 million of annual B.C. wine imports, Vancouver's Okanagan Estate Wine Shop — B.C.'s oldest private wine vendor — posted to Facebook: "Drink Alberta's share of B.C. wine to stop Kinder Morgan? Challenge accepted."

Owner Mike Romand insisted he takes no side in the pipeline conflict, but it's simply unfair to use B.C.'s successful wine industry as a weapon.

"We specialize in local wines and like to support our producers," he said. "They didn't really have anything to do with this conflict."

Although many British Columbians predicted a pugilistic Premier John Horgan — after his Alberta counterpart blocked the $70-million annual B.C. wine imports Tuesday — instead he said Rachel Notley putting a cork across the border was a "distraction."

His government, he insisted, won't be shutting off the Alberta prime rib pipeline in retaliation, amidst a simmering dispute over B.C. demanding more oil spill review of Kinder Morgan's bitumen pipeline.

"I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have dueling premiers," he said Wednesday. "It's not the government's intention to respond in any way to the provocation… (We) hope that cooler heads on the other side of the Rockies prevail."

His "right as a premier," he told reporters, "is to consult British Columbians with regard to protecting our coast … I will not be distracted from the task."

But observers warned that a game of economic "hardball" between the provinces could escalate fast — and it will hurt both sides.

University of B.C. political scientist Max Cameron, who previously specialized in trade relations, said it's a classic example of "a tit-for-tat strategy" where players retaliate against each other with "measures intended to signal the seriousness of the issue" under dispute.

"But there's no link between the production of oil and wine," the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions director told Metro. "It's a purely strategic linkage. The question is, does playing hard-ball work?

"The optics of that are particularly negative for the Premier of Alberta, because it looks like bullying; the collateral damage to the wine industry, which is really in no way implicated in this dispute, anybody would agree is hurtful."

B.C. wine on the shelves of the Okanagan Estate Wine Shop at 3669 West 4th Ave., on Feb. 7, 2018

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

B.C. wine on the shelves of the Okanagan Estate Wine Shop at 3669 West 4th Ave., on Feb. 7, 2018

Hard-ball often won't work if one side of the gambit is "unstable," he argued. In B.C.'s case, Horgan's NDP government holds a minority of Legislature seats and is only in power thanks to the anti-pipeline Greens.

"The entire future of the government rests on the agreement with the Greens who are categorical in their insistence there be no expansion of fossil fuel exports," Cameron said. "So what Notley is effectively asking for is Horgan's resignation.

"That's a rather big ask; I don't think that Horgan can back down."

Simon Fraser University political scientist David Moscrop, meanwhile, said that the economic costs of an escalating trade dispute should give every side pause.

"It looks like Horgan has wisely not taken the bait," he told Metro, "at least (he) indicated he has no intention to escalate it.

"Nobody's going to win in a trade war, because it could become very expensive, very quickly. If one were to launch, you'd probably get an initial bump of support as people rally around their provincial flags — but then you start to see its effects on their businesses, their jobs, their earnings."

The move could also harden pipeline opponents in B.C., where opinion is fiercely divided and civil disobedience threats loom. Notley's blockade led both sides of the bitumen divide to raise a glass to support B.C. wineries.

“We need to stop this wine war," said B.C. Liberal Kelowna-West by-election candidate Ben Stewart. "Particularly for smaller and newer wine producers who rely heavily on the Alberta market." Horgan, he said, "pushed the wine sector into the line of fire."

More on