By Doug Firby
and John Stewart
Editor’s note: Thursday’s Federal Court of Appeal ruling overturning the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is a victory for opponents but a devastating blow to Alberta’s plans to boost oil-and-gas exports from the province. Doug Firby, Troy Media’s publisher, and John Stewart, editor-in-chief, discuss the potential political, social and economic consequences of the decision.
Firby: Rachel Notley’s government just had the worst day of its existence. This ruling blows their pipeline strategy out of the water. Carbon tax, playing nice with the feds … all for naught, it seems. Politically, the NDP is in big trouble. Let’s not kid ourselves – their chances of getting re-elected are pretty much dead, unless Notley can find a way to get this solved, and fast.
Stewart: There are no winners in this game of political ping-pong. Justin Trudeau needs to stare long and hard in the mirror: his ineptitude and flip-flopping is a large part of the problem. And the Conservatives in Ottawa need to keep their heads down: the previous Tory government of Stephen Harper has its messy fingerprints all over this disaster as a result of its failure to approve the pipeline on its watch. Alberta United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney was part of that previous federal government and he can’t divorce himself from that legacy.
Every Canadian is staring at a less affluent future today. And every Canadian should be aware that by failing to get our resources to customers other than Americans, we’re contributing to serious international environmental problems. Should we be happy that the Chinese will keep operating coal-fired power plants because they won’t have access to our oil?
Firby: In the finger-pointing, let’s not forget the National Energy Board (which, you’ll recall, is being scrapped and replaced). The board never really seemed to understand what consultation with Indigenous groups really meant. Clearly, the court felt that the NEB was paying lip-service to the concept of consultation but not really getting at the heart of the issue for those diverse groups of people.
Then I wonder how the Trudeau government failed to anticipate this ruling. Here we are, paying $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars to a private company for a project whose real value is probably a heck of a lot less today, thanks to the court ruling. You might as well just set all that cash on fire. Makes the feds look pretty foolish, don’t you think?
Stewart: It may be as fundamental as the whole sunshine and lollipops mindset of Trudeau. It’s difficult to discern any backbone when the issues get difficult and the circumstances call for focus and resolve. We’re seeing it in his response to the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations. No matter how provocative Donald Trump is, Trudeau doesn’t seem to want to push back (although Chrystia Freeland seems willing to).
It’s also difficult to see any real commitment to conversation and understanding from the federal government, or at least from Trudeau. It’s clear the government has failed to engage with pipeline critics to try to find common ground or a compromise. We’ve seen the same kind of reluctance to listen during the national conversation over immigration.
Perhaps this is also the undoing of the federal government – we’ll find out in October 2019. But perhaps it’s just the undoing of Trudeau – what are the odds there are rumblings within the party about his future?
Firby: If Trudeau really wants to grow cajones, he could invoke the ‘declaratory power’ of Section 91.10 of the Constitution Act. It allows Parliament to authorize certain actions if it is deemed “for the general Advantage of Canada.”
Voting to build the pipeline anyway would be a bold – a very provocative – move, but it would get the job done once and for all.
Taking any bets on that one?
Or the government can focus on this little tidbit in the federal ruling: “The concerns of the Indigenous applicants, communicated to Canada, are specific and focused. This means that the dialogue Canada must engage in can also be specific and focused. This may serve to make the corrected consultation process brief and efficient while ensuring it is meaningful. The end result may be a short delay in the project. …”
Meanwhile, all those opponents to the pipeline should also be reminded that the oil is not staying in the ground. It’s just being shipped by rail – an environmentally far riskier proposition than pipelines.
Stewart: It seems completely unlikely that Trudeau would provoke anyone, particularly the Indigenous community. So the alternative is to sit down – quickly – with all of the intervening parties and find a way out of this mess. Compromise, consensus or just the commitment to muscle through the objections – any approach would be better than the dithering we have now.
Going back through the labyrinth regulatory process seems destined to churn up time without guaranteeing a result. Canadian Association of Petroleum products president and CEO Time McMillan says, “We have a regulatory system in Canada that is so complex that not even the government or the regulator understands it.” That doesn’t inspire confidence.
Repeating the regulatory process will take an incredible amount of time – perhaps as long as the projected 18 to 24 months it would take the Supreme Court to review the Federal Court of Appeal decision. Any way you look at it, the clock is ticking and in the meantime, Canada’s economy is likely to remain tepid and our future prospects appear increasingly dim.
Never mind the increasingly dim prospect of Trudeau or Notley being re-elected next year if this is their legacy.
Firby: Between this and the NAFTA fiasco, it’s shaping up to the an annus horribilis for not just those two governments, but also for the economy of our country. If there’s one lesson I hope we all learn, it’s that we need to do whatever we can to reduce our reliance on the elephant to the south.
Stewart: There’s a message we’ve heard before, and we heard it again from Notley this week. Politicians of all stripes have chanted that mantra for decades. Until they realize that projects like Trans Mountain are a fundamental part of making it a reality, we’re doomed to remain in the shadow of the elephant.
Doug Firby is Troy Media’s publisher. John Stewart is Troy Media’s editor-in-chief.