With the National Energy Board conditionally approving the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline expansion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now finds himself with some tough choices.
The NEB approval moves the ball squarely into the federal government’s court, tasking it with balancing what may well turn out to be an incompatible set of interests – a process fraught with political risk.
Earlier this week Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Environment Minister Katherine McKenna named a three-member ministerial panel which will spend June-September reviewing the project, before delivering a report in November.
Trudeau and Cabinet will then have to make a final decision on the project by December.
Here are some of the factors he’ll have to weigh in making the call:
First Nations opposition to the project provides the government with both a legal quandry, and a moral one in the context of the government’s pledge to develop a new relationship with aboriginal peoples.
Among the opponents is North Vancouver’s Tsleil-Waututh Nation which has consistently opposed the project, and earlier this month launched a legal challenge arguing the NEB and Crown have been running roughshod over aboriginal title.
Following the news today, Tsleil-Waututh spokesperson Reuben George reinforced that conviction.
“First Nations have won 170 legal cases in the last few years, that’s 97% victory. We have veto power over this industry, and we’re going to go to court and make sure we have consultation with Canada, and make sure that we do all means possible to stop it.”
The government is clearly sensitive to this challenge and has promised the review panel will “meaningfully consult” First Nations, and where possible, accommodate them.
It has also appointed Kim Baird, a former Tsawwassen chief and consultant in First Nations issues, along with kicking in more cash to allow First Nations to participate in the process.
However, First Nation opposition to the project is anything but universal. Kinder Morgan claims to already have support of 30 indigenous groups in B.C. and Alberta for the project.
Alberta and the oil sector
The term ‘Hurtin’ Albertan’ has long been thrown around as a political slur. But today the simple fact is that Alberta is hurting.
Plunging oil prices have devastated the oilpatch, shedding more than 35,000 jobs in 2015 alone.
The Fort McMurray fire has only deepened the crisis, displacing thousands of workers and destroying at least one work camp.
And the problem isn’t just Alberta’s – the oil sector draws employees from across the country, and has frequently been referred to as “Canada’s economic engine.”
To many in the region, securing a project like TransMountain would be a vital lifeline – a sensitivity the Liberals are keenly aware of, judging by their stated commitment to secure a pipeline to tidewater:
It’s not just First Nations in the area who are opposed to the TransMountain project.
Local government, particularly the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby came out swinging against the project when it was first proposed, and haven’t let up since.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has vowed the city will “vigorously advocate” for the feds to reject the project.
“There is no way you could mitigate an oil tanker going over in the waters here in Vancouver. It would have a catastrophic impact on our economy. This city sells itself as one of the most beautiful in the world that attracts tourists and investment because of what we have here, all of that is at-risk if there is an oil spill.”
Grassroots groups have also been extremely active – staging a national-headline-making occupation of Burnaby Mountain during Kinder Morgan surveying in 2014, and regular demonstrations since.
One group has even pledged to trigger a referendum on the project.
An Insights West poll last summer found 46 per cent oppose the project, compared to 42 per cent who support it, and last year’s English Bay oil spill may have helped crystallize opposition in Metro Vancouver.
All of this puts the Liberals in a delicate political position as they look to conserve their 2015 electoral breakthrough in B.C., much of it focused in the Lower Mainland.
With 17 seats in the province, the most the party has won in decades, the Liberals must now weigh potential impacts of their choice at the ballot box.
Environmental groups have long targeted pipeline projects for their contribution to global climate change.
That wasn’t a problem for the former Conservative government, who excluded climate arguments from the pipeline approval process.
However, the Liberals have committed to building upstream carbon emissions in, and were very public in their support of the Paris Climate Treaty.
Back in January Natural Resource Minister Dale Carr made the following pledge:
“Greenhouse gas emissions for all these projects should be made public. The Canadian people should know what these numbers are. They will be assessed by the environment department and they will be considered by the Government of Canada when it is time to make a decision about the national interest in all of these projects.”
The Liberals now face the unenviable position of balancing the effects of climate change with questions of national interest of the project.
The B.C. Government
Finally, Trudeau now must make a position that could put him at odds with B.C.’s provincial government.
Back in January, the province formally opposed the project, citing its belief Kinder Morgan had failed to provide an adequate plan to prevent or clean up an oil spill.
That, in the context of Christy Clark’s 2012 pledge to block any pipeline that didn’t meet five conditions:
- Successful completion of the environmental review process
- World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems
- World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response and recovery systems
- Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed
- British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits
The province must approve some 60 construction permits for the project to go ahead, and in the wake of a recent lawsuit, must also issue an environmental certificate.
All of that could set up a nasty federal-provincial scrap, should Trudeau approve the project, but B.C. remain opposed.