The Pre-election Universe is Unfolding as it Should


Don Newman
June 19, 2019

The widely predicted decision by the Trudeau government to re-approve the twinning of the Trans-Mountain pipeline sets up a dynamic for the federal election this fall that I first described in a column I wrote for Policy Magazine in September of 2018.

That dynamic pits the approval and likely eventual construction of the pipeline against the environmental concerns construction will generate and the broader issue of fighting climate change and global warming; a tension evident in the sequence this week of Monday’s declaration of a climate emergency and Tuesday’s Trans-Mountain announcement.

The twinning of Trans Mountain will triple the pipeline’s current capacity to 890,000 barrels a day from Alberta’s oil sands to a coastal terminal in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

The Alberta Government and the oil industry say the pipeline is essential to the economic health of the oil patch and therefore of the province; it will open markets in Asia to Canadian energy supplies that now can be shipped only to the United States and are sold at a discount, largely because of the supply glut created by inadequate pipeline capacity.

But environmentalists have been equally determined to stop the pipeline. They say that, in addition to the usual dangers of a pipeline rupture and oil spill, the increased number of oil tankers in Vancouver harbour loading oil and transporting it through the sensitive waters around Vancouver Island to Asia will present a whole other level of environmental hazard.

Among Indigenous groups along that route in B.C., resistance to the project remains, but since the federal government bought the pipeline in 2018 to keep the project alive, at least two Indigenous-led groups have expressed interest in buying the pipeline if it ever gets built.

In the meantime, there is the federal election on October 21st. The Liberals hope there will be shovels in the ground before voters go to the polls, even though in Alberta and British Columbia, the chances of reaping any political benefit are slight to nil.

Originally, the Trudeau government portrayed the pipeline as part of a grand bargain: A transitional approach of approving energy projects that would increase greenhouse gas emissions along with provincial carbon taxes designed to reduce those same emissions.

But provincial governments that originally supported that approach have now been replaced by Conservative ones that are canceling schemes to reduce emissions and fighting the federal government in court over Ottawa’s replacement tax, which will be imposed in provinces that no longer have their own.

Prime Minister Trudeau is now promising that any money made from either the operation or the sale of the Trans Mountain pipeline extension will be committed to low carbon technology and green house gas emission reduction. It is an idea originally floated by the independent International Institute For Sustainable Development a few years ago. Trudeau hopes it will keep at least some of his greener supporters onside.

For the moment, that leaves the Conservatives — ardent supporters of the oil industry and this pipeline — with a dilemma. When the pipeline was re-approved, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was reduced to complaining that Trudeau had not been able to announce a start date for construction. As was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who spent three million dollars on an advertising campaign urging the federal government to give its approval to the expansion.

The fact is, neither of them nor anyone else would be able to provide a date certain for construction to begin. There are still future court challenges and other delays that environmentalists and Indigenous opponents of the pipeline can launch.

The New Democrats were already opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion, so predictably have decried the re-approval.

Now, as the summer pre-campaign gets underway, the NDP will continue to express their opposition, hoping in part to hold off a newly invigorated Green Party that has been threatening to eat into their support.

And with the pipeline re-approval out of the way, the Conservatives will have to concentrate on convincing Canadians the carbon tax is a tax grab, not an environmental program.

The Liberals have removed one uncertainty by re-approving the pipeline. But will that drive potential voters who are adamantly against new pipelines into the arms of the NDP or the Greens?

And while the decision has spiked some Conservative guns, it does focus debate on the efficacy of the carbon tax, which may or may not resonate beyond the Conservative base.

As I wrote in the column last fall, there will be other issues at play in the upcoming election — and that was before the saga broke of Jody Wilson-Raybauld and SNC-Lavalin.

But my conclusion then, my prediction in the current issue of Policy and my conclusion now is that how these issues play out will be a key to determining who forms the next government.

Truly, the universe is unfolding as it should.


Don Newman is senior counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.