A pipe­line straight to po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ter?

Built or not built, a twinned pipe­line will cause fall­out

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - DOUG FIRBY

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.

Amid 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 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. Dis­trib­uted by Troy Me­dia.

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