Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (middle)
Trudeau can buy off opponents or run roughshod over them or actively negotiate a middle ground that benefits BC, Alberta, and Canada
When Justin Trudeau said Canada needs “wind turbines and pipelines,” Energi News agreed. When he approved two pipelines in late 2016, we applauded, because Alberta is working hard to turn its “dirty oil” into the cleanest heavy crude in the world and we support that effort. But over the past year the Prime Minister has wobbled on the market access issue, to the point where the current political crisis around the Trans Mountain Expansion project must be mostly laid at this feet.
Anyone who follows BC opposition to pipelines even casually could have seen this coming. Many did.
But not the Prime Minister, apparently.
And to make matters worse, he has opened a second front on the pipeline wars by recently introducing substantial changes to the way energy infrastructure is reviewed, approved, and regulated.
All this change might have been acceptable if Trudeau or Jim Carr, his natural resources minister and point man on this file, were actively managing the politics.
Sadly, they haven’t been.
Take the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Pipeline wars have been raging in British Columbia for over a decade, starting with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. While public opinion polling has consistently shown the province split over pipelines, opponents have been growing increasingly vocal and well organized.
And from the very beginning, coastal First Nations have provided much of the leadership for the anti-pipeline movement. American charities may provide funds, environment groups may provide organization and communications support, surrounding communities may provide numbers, but indigenous communities have always been the moral centre of opposition to West Coast pipelines.
While we may disagree with those First Nations on this issue, Energi News respects their commitment to their traditional territories and the push back against what they perceive as a very real threat to their way of life.
While Christy Clark and the Liberals were in power, First Nations were always going to be the immovable object Kinder Morgan and Trudeau bumped up against. Energi News has argued for years that the Canadian government needed to actively engage with BC indigenous leaders to find a compromise acceptable to all parties.
That didn’t happen. And it’s pretty clear now that little if any effort was expended trying to make it happen.
But then came the BC election in May 2017 and a month later the BC NDP formed a minority government supported by Andrew Weaver and the Green Party. Their co-operation agreement included the infamous line about opposing Kinder Morgan with “every tool in the toolbox.”
Thanks to Environment Minister George Heyman’s indiscreet remarks during a seeming innocuous exchange in a committee meeting Monday, we now know that upon taking office the Horgan government received legal advice about which jurisdiction had ultimate authority over inter-provincial pipelines: hint, it’s not BC.
“It was made clear to me, made clear to us, that issues of inter-jurisdictional immunity and paramountcy meant that we couldn’t simply do what we initially, in opposition, thought was an option for government,” Heyman said in response to a question from Liberal Mike de Jong.
Ever since, Heyman and Horgan have been sending out contradicting messages: the BC government’s intent is to protect the coast and we’re processing Kinder Morgan applications just as the rules require, but we’re also against this project and we would really, really like to stop it.
It has been obvious for the past 10 months that left untended, this festering conflict would explode into some kind of crisis.
Yet there is no evidence that the Prime Minister, his ministers, or any of the 17 Liberal BC MPs were actively seeking common ground and a solution all the parties to this dispute could live with.
Or, if that was impossible – and arguably it would have been a pretty dicey mission in the best of cases – then at least have made the effort and built up some political capital for the hard slogging ahead.
Instead, Trudeau has limited himself to public expressions of support that provide no clue as to what he actually plans to do when push comes to shove.
“It is in the national interest to move forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and we will be moving forward with the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” he told an unruly crowd in Nanaimo, BC in early Feb.
That’s the mantra.
Which is fine. But what’s missing is the “how.”
Sources have been telling media that the Prime Minister doesn’t have many options.
In a Feb. column, Energi News suggested there were only two: Trudeau could buy off opponents with big cheques or he could use the Canadian government’s legal powers to ram through pipeline construction and take his political lumps when the next election rolls around in the fall of 2019.
Let us introduce a third: The federal government commits that all incremental tax revenue from the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline over the lifetime of the project be remitted back to British Columbia to fund green infrastructure, particularly public transit.
Lower Mainland voters soundly rejected a tax proposal several years ago to raise billions for green transportation options. The problem hasn’t disappeared and the funding might be warmly welcomed by municipalities.
But whatever the Prime Minister decides to do, he must do it quickly.
Trudeau has dawdled long enough, the time has come to act. We only hope it’s not too late.