Sohi walks risky path as he asks Albertans for pipeline patience
Minister fighting two separate, though related, battles on the energy front
Three years ago, he was the winner of one of the closest elections in Edmonton’s history.
Today, Amarjeet Sohi is the country’s natural resources minister, responsible for quelling a rising maelstrom over Ottawa’s handling of energy projects vital to his constituents.
A year from now, the Edmonton Mill Woods MP may be joining Albertans on the unemployment line if he and the Trudeau government don’t get the ship righted.
In a conversation with the Edmonton Journal’s editorial board this week, Sohi acknowledged he is fighting at least two separate, though related battles on the energy front.
The first is the federal government’s response to a court decision quashing the approval to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Ottawa has decided not to appeal the ruling — as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and others have demanded — nor will they draft legislation to get around it.
Instead the federal government has decided that the easiest path is to address the failings of the project cited by the court, including the need to have more “meaningful” consultations with Indigenous groups in B.C.
To make sure those consultations are done properly, the government can’t keep the appeal option in its back pocket, because “then you are not really engaging in good faith,” Sohi said.
Not that an appeal would likely succeed at this point, not with Sohi and his colleagues freely admitting that they messed up last time.
“I’ll be the first one to acknowledge we did not do a good job on consultation with Indigenous people,” he told the editorial board.
For the same reason, the minister is also refusing to impose a timeline on the upcoming talks.
The motivations here seem good, at least on the surface, but there is also some inconsistency and a fair bit of wishful thinking in the federal government’s approach.
For one thing, the consultations ahead won’t exactly be a friendly chat around the kitchen table.
Some of those talks will be with leaders who are among the most determined opponents of the pipeline and are understandably jaded from the mistakes of the first round of consultations.
Making matters even more difficult is the court’s insistence that consultations be conducted with an open mind and without a pre-determined outcome.
It’s hard to see how that’s possible when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared, “We will get the pipeline built” and his government is committing nearly $12 billion to acquire the current Trans Mountain line and build the expansion.
Meaningful engagement with affected Indigenous communities is essential. But given the formidable challenge these consultations present, it’s hard to understand why Sohi’s government has decided to deny itself the option to file an appeal or impose a timeline.
Still, the minister insists Canadians shouldn’t worry.
He said the duty to consult doesn’t mean agreeing to scrap Trans Mountain, but rather to accommodate concerned groups in ways that ensure “the pipeline gets built the right way.”
That leads into the minister’s second battle, on the controversial Bill C-69, whose opponents include Notley.
The premier and oilpatch boosters have characterized the bill as an overreach into provincial jurisdiction, and fretted that the inclusion of downstream emissions into environmental reviews will kill future energy projects.
However, Sohi is adamant that the province’s worries are unwarranted. C-69 is meant to streamline the approval process and downstream emissions are not included, he said.
The problem is, it’s not clear to Notley, the media and others. A cursory look at the bill did not solve the mystery for me either.
And if such uncertainty continues to surround the complex legislation, it’s a fair question to ask whether it’s good legislation.
In restarting Trans Mountain consultations without an appeal option and by pushing ahead with C-69, Sohi is essentially asking Albertans for patience as his government cements an approval process that will minimize future chaos and confusion.
“In my mind this is a once in a generation opportunity to get it right,” he said.
It’s also a risky play, because asking Albertans for patience at this point is like imploring Oilers fans that the Stanley Cup is just around the corner if they keep buying season’s tickets.
Eventually, the crowd is going to turn hostile.
Politics can be a cruel journey, even when your motivations are good, as I think Sohi’s are in this case.
Unfortunately for him, we all know where a road of good intentions tends to lead.
Should Ottawa’s chosen path create more failures and delay for pipelines, it may not be just the Notley government that pays the price in 2019.