Na­tion-build­ing pitch not work­ing for pipe­line

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Chan­tal Hébert Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional affairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

In the face of mount­ing Que­bec op­po­si­tion to the En­ergy East pipe­line, the Tran­sCanada plan to link the oil­fields of Western Canada to the re­finer­ies of the At­lantic re­gion is not of­fi­cially dead but it is, at best, on life sup­port.

On pa­per, no mayor in­clud­ing De­nis Coderre, the for­mer Lib­eral min­is­ter who cur­rently runs Mon­treal, has the power to block a pipe­line. Nor can a prov­ince veto the pro­ject. The fi­nal word on na­tional in­fra­struc­ture un­der­tak­ings rests with the fed­eral govern­ment.

But in the real world, the lat­est de­vel­op­ments have turned a chal­leng­ing is­sue for Justin Trudeau’s govern­ment into a highly toxic one.

When Coderre for­mally an­nounced his city’s op­po­si­tion to the Tran­sCanada pipe­line, he was act­ing as the spokesper­son for 81 other Mon­treal-area may­ors. To­gether they rep­re­sent more than half of all Que­be­cers. Their re­gion is also home to the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of Lib­eral vot­ers in Que­bec.

Be­fore Thurs­day’s mu­nic­i­pal news con­fer­ence, the sovereign­tist par­ties dom­i­nated the an­tip­ipeline bar­ri­cades in Que­bec. The Bloc Québé­cois cam­paigned hard against it in last fall’s fed­eral elec­tion.

With Coderre’s an­nounce­ment, a siz­able fed­er­al­ist con­tin­gent has now joined the fight.

An im­me­di­ate col­lat­eral re­sult is to make the Tran­sCanada plan one of the stakes in the larger Que­bec de­bate over the prov­ince’s com­mand of its affairs. In the pipe­line pro­ject, the sovereign­tist move­ment has found an is­sue that stands to test the lim­its of Que­bec’s au­ton­omy within the fed­er­a­tion and — in the event of a Que­bec-Ottawa col­li­sion — rekin­dle sup­port for its in­de­pen­dence pro­ject.

Que­bec Premier Philippe Couil­lard, like On­tario’s Kath­leen Wynne, has been sit­ting on the fence on the En­ergy East pipe­line. Both gov­ern­ments pre­sented Tran­sCanada with a list of con­di­tions the com­pany would have to meet to se­cure their sup­port.

As of this week that fence has be­come dis­tinc­tively less com­fort­able. In the face of a wall of mu­nic­i­pal ob­jec­tions, one can only won­der how much political cap­i­tal Couil­lard will want to ex­pend on a pro­ject that ul­ti­mately of­fers the prov­ince few di­rect eco­nomic ben­e­fits.

The in­cen­tives for Wynne to cham­pion the pipe­line are also few. Last sum­mer, the prov­ince’s en­ergy watch­dog con­cluded the pipe­line’s risks out­weigh its ben­e­fits to On­tario. And then, in op­po­si­tion, Justin Trudeau promised Cana­di­ans that un­der a Lib­eral govern­ment no pipe­line pro­ject would see the light of day in the ab­sence of what he called a so­cial li­cence.

Trudeau never de­fined the terms of such a li­cence but he did of­fer a marker. In his book, North­ern Gate­way, the pipe­line pro­ject de­signed to link Al­berta’s oil­fields to the coast of Bri­tish Columbia, has failed to se­cure enough lo­cal, en­vi­ron­men­tal and abo­rig­i­nal sup­port to make the cut.

By the time he lands back from Davos, Switzer­land, the prime min­is­ter — even if he puts on the rose-tinted glasses he so loves — will be hard-pressed to spot a glim­mer of hope that Tran­sCanada’s En­ergy East pipe­line will ever fare bet­ter in his home prov­ince.

He will also find him­self in the cross­fire of an in­ter­provin­cial war of words that has al­ready es­ca­lated at a pre­cip­i­tous pace, in no small part thanks to so­cial me­dia.

Within hours of the Coderre news con­fer­ence, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall tweeted that Mon­treal should hand back the equal­iza­tion money it has been re­ceiv­ing, part of which comes from wealth gen­er­ated by Western Canada’s oil and gas in­dus­tries.

Never one to shy from a fight - es­pe­cially at a safe so­cial me­dia dis­tance — Coderre replied that he and his col­leagues speak for four times more peo­ple than the premier of Saskatchewan, and that their taxes con­trib­ute to fund the fed­eral in­fra­struc­tures of the Prairie prov­ince.

Add to this al­ready ex­plo­sive mix the con­cerns of the propipeline govern­ment of New Brunswick, a prov­ince that gave Trudeau all of its seats last fall and whose Lib­eral premier is a close ally, and you have a unity mine­field.

The back­ers of the En­ergy East pro­ject have al­ways be­lieved — and in this they are not alone — that if only one pipe­line was go­ing to see the light of day in Canada it would be the Tran­sCanada one. That is still true.

What has not panned out is their Pollyan­naish strat­egy of sell­ing the plan for an oil pipe­line as a na­tion-build­ing pro­ject — li­able to bring the coun­try to­gether in the way that the rail­road did in the 19th cen­tury.

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