Few issues in recent Canadian history have been as divisive as the debate over the construction of new pipelines to carry crude oil to market. The uncertain results from the election in British Columbia only add fuel to a roaring fire.
The “blue” Liberal government of Premier Christy Clark won the most seats in the May 9 vote, but not a majority. Her party must now court the support of either the New Democratic or Green parties to achieve a mandate to govern. Should the Liberals fail to reach an agreement, it’s conceivable the NDP and Greens could combine to form government. For proponents of the twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, either scenario provides ample reason to lose sleep.
Clark, you may recall, played tough in her opposition to having a pipeline carry diluted Alberta bitumen across B.C. for shipment to Asian markets. A lot of watchers felt her theatrics were orchestrated so B.C. could extract the largest amount of compensation from its neighbour to the east. As if to confirm those suspicions, and almost on cue, Clark announced the five conditions she had spelled out for provincial acceptance of the pipeline had been met. Signs pointed to a green light for the $7.4-billion project.
It was an audacious standoff, considering pipeline approvals rest in the hands of federal authorities, not provincial. But Clark knew that, regardless of the jurisdictional parsing, environmentalists and First Nations communities in B.C. were – and indeed, are – ready to fight to the finish to stop Trans Mountain. That’s pretty hefty negotiating leverage.
Unlike the pro-business Liberals, the NDP and Greens of B.C. aren’t ready to roll over on the pipeline. Both parties are fiercely opposed to it, regardless of the boost it would add to both provincial and federal economies.
Clark now faces a very awkward dilemma. It seems almost certain that either opposition party will demand resistance to Trans Mountain as a condition for the co-operation needed for the Liberals to form government. If Clark doesn’t play along, her party’s days in government will be very short indeed.
Obviously sensing that Clark needs a hand, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley spoke out this week, reminding B.C. politicians that pipeline approvals are federal business. She told reporters, “I fundamentally disagree with the view that one province or even one region can hold hostage the economy of another province or, in this case, the economy of our entire country.”
In principle, Notley is absolutely correct. Unfortunately, it’s not an argument that’s likely to sway pipeline opponents.
Amidst all this posturing, the federal government faces renewed pressure to reconsider its approval of the project. The Grits have already heard from unhappy West Coast Liberal MPs who run the risk of losing seats in the next federal election. Will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still be willing to pay an ever-growing political price for allowing the pipeline to proceed?
The irony in all this fuss is that Trudeau effectively gave succour to the opposition leading up to the last federal election when he promised his government would listen to the wishes of British Columbians. If he were really listening, the message from that province is clear enough – on balance, most citizens of B.C. want the pipeline stopped.
Of course, in this case a federal government that bends to the will of one province betrays the wishes of another. Either way, somebody is going to hate you.
Trudeau needs to stay the course. The National Energy Board imposed 157 conditions on the pipeline project. If built as required, it would be the safest, most heavily regulated pipeline in the world. To be sure, such conditions don’t eliminate the possibility of a spill (or deliberate sabotage), but they reduce the odds to infinitesimally small.
Building the pipeline also would provide a much-needed boost to Canada’s economy, and represent a meaningful step toward reducing our dependence on the U.S. as our dominant trade partner. In the era of an erratic, isolationist president, isn’t that a worthy goal?
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.
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