OTTAWA – Just because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is refusing to wade publicly into the emerging pipeline-induced trade war between British Columbia and Alberta, that doesn’t mean things aren’t happening out of the public eye, his environment minister suggested Wednesday.
Speaking in French after the weekly government caucus meeting, Catherine McKenna said things sometimes happen behind closed doors and that solutions are often more easily found without drama.
Maybe so — but when it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline dispute, the no-drama ship has officially sailed.
B.C. threw down the gloves last week when it proposed a regulation to restrict expanded flows of oil through the province without a guarantee spills can be cleaned up — a measure that would effectively halt, if not kill outright, the plan approved by Ottawa in 2016 to triple existing pipeline capacity between Alberta and B.C.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley responded by threatening legal action, cancelling talks to buy electricity from B.C. and then, most recently on Tuesday, banning imports of B.C. wine.
Politically, Notley needs the pipeline built to have any hope of re-election next year; B.C. Premier John Horgan campaigned on a promise to kill it off. His minority government’s tenuous grip on power depends on keeping the Green party happy — which means Horgan can’t back down.
Pressure is mounting on Trudeau to step into the dispute.
Trudeau’s positive words of support for the Trans Mountain pipeline are all well and good, but at some point he will have to do more, said Kinder Morgan CEO Ian Anderson.
“I’m expecting the federal government to help solve this dispute between the provinces. I think there’s a role there for them,” Anderson said.
“I think that asserting their federal jurisdiction in whatever manner they determine is most effective and most appropriate is something I’ll be looking for, so that we get past the words of support to the actions of support that we’re all chasing hard.”
Trudeau and the Liberals haven’t shown any evidence they’ve done anything to urge the project along, said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. The government said it would not tolerate undue delays, but no one knows what that means or what the government is prepared to do, he noted.
Canada’s constitution gives Ottawa jurisdiction over interprovincial infrastructure like pipelines, so the federal government has the authority to move things along, said Scheer — but it looks as if Trudeau doesn’t actually want that to happen.
“The problem that we have in this context is that a certain period of delay causes uncertainty which causes these projects to get cancelled,” Scheer said. “I suspect that’s exactly what Justin Trudeau wants. He wants this project to fail and he is allowing the B.C. NDP to do it for him.”
Trudeau and members of his cabinet have repeatedly pledged their support and faith in the Trans Mountain project, and continue to insist it will be built.
How the government plans to make that happen remains unclear.
“We’re continuing to discuss and engage with the B.C. government, with the Alberta government,” the prime minister said Wednesday before his weekly caucus meeting. “We’re making sure we come to the right place that’s in the national interest for Canada.
“We’re going to continue to engage with the premiers on a regular basis.”
The Trans Mountain impasse is precisely the sort of thing Ottawa hopes to avoid with new legislation to overhaul the environmental assessment process. That legislation, after two years of consultations, discussion papers and expert panels, is expected to create a single review process with timelines to provide more certainty for both environmental groups and project proponents.
McKenna said the legislation will have no surprises and that it will be a clear process to make sure good projects can get the go ahead.
The Trans Mountain fight could have been avoided, had that long-promised process been delivered on time, said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Conservative natural resources critic Shannon Stubbs attributes the problem to the Liberals trying to claim allegiance to both the environment and the economy.
During question period this week, Carr defended the decision to build Trans Mountain based on a sound review process, followed a few minutes later by McKenna “eviscerating the process” before she introduces the overhaul legislation, Stubbs noted.
“Is it any wonder then their defence of the issue is lukewarm?”
— With files from Ian Bickis in Calgary.
— Follow @mrabson on Twitter