Sohi walks risky path as he asks Al­ber­tans for pipe­line pa­tience

Min­is­ter fight­ing two sep­a­rate, though re­lated, bat­tles on the en­ergy front

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - KEITH GEREIN kgerein@post­media.com twit­ter.com/ kei­thgerein

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.

Amar­jeet Sohi

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