The Trudeau government is facing a difficult scenario with a pipeline project in British Columbia it supports now that a provincial government is coming in that’s firmly opposed to it, experts say.
What’s at stake is the $7.4-billion expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia. The project was approved by the federal government last November and by the National Energy Board the preceding May, and had the endorsement of Liberal B.C. Premier Christy Clark, whose government fell on June 29 on a 44-42 vote of non-confidence after 16 years of Liberal rule.
Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) must work with NDP leader and premier-designate John Horgan, poised to lead a minority government propped up by the provincial Green Party. The NDP holds 41 seats, the Greens three, and the Liberals 43.
Both the NDP and Green Party in B.C. are staunchly opposed to the planned twinning of the Trans Mountain, which would increase the capacity of this pipeline running from Edmonton to near Vancouver from about 300,000 barrels of oil a day to 890,000.
The NDP platform in this year’s B.C. election campaign said: “The Kinder Morgan pipeline is not in B.C.’s interest. It means a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic. It doesn’t, and won’t, meet the necessary conditions of providing benefits to British Columbia without putting our environment and our economy at unreasonable risk. We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop the project from going ahead.”
While the federal government appears to hold the power from a jurisdictional point of view, experts say it would be uncharacteristic of the Trudeau government to be heavy handed on this politically sensitive matter.
“It could very well be, and I rather suspect it’s the case, that the Trudeau government doesn’t know what it’s going to do at this point,” said Brent Patterson, political director for the Council of Canadians, a group opposed to the pipeline expansion. “There’s not a clear avenue in terms of [the federal government] getting their way, and so it may be a prolonged period of negotiations and some offering of tradeoffs or whatnot.”
Since the B.C. legislature handed Ms. Clark a vote of non-confidence last month, Mr. Trudeau has stayed silent publicly on the issue of the Trans Mountain expansion.
When asked last week how Mr. Trudeau will respond to this new B.C. government as it relates to the pipeline, the Prime Minister’s Office would only point to his congratulatory press release on Mr. Horgan’s victory, released on June 30, which made no mention of the Trans Mountain expansion.
In it, Mr. Trudeau said: “I look forward to working closely with premier-designate Horgan to deliver real results on the issues that matter to British Columbians and to all Canadians.”
Public comments Mr. Trudeau made while visiting B.C. in May—after the provincial election but before results were finalized—were more explicit in his views on the pipeline: “Canadians understand that we need to both protect the environment and build a better economy at the same time. Anyone proposing a false choice around that is wrong.”
Alexandre Deslongchamps, spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre, Man.), said in an email: “As the prime minister said, the decision we took on the Trans Mountain pipeline was based on facts and evidence and on what is in the national interest. Regardless of a change in government in British Columbia or anywhere, the facts and evidence do not change.
He added: “We understand that growing a strong economy for the future requires taking leadership on the environment, and we have to do those two things together. That is what drives us in the choices we make and we stand by those choices.”
When asked how the change in government in B.C. would affect pipeline plans, Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson said in an email statement sent to The Hill Times: “We congratulate premier-designate Horgan and we look forward to the opportunity to provide an update on the status of the project and its benefits to B.C. We are continuing with all aspects of planning for the Trans Mountain expansion project, including finalizing construction contracts and delivering on our commitments through investments in jobs, safety, the environment, and communities as we prepare for construction this fall.”
Mr. Horgan’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said in an interview with The Hill Times that he remains opposed to the pipeline and that there’s no way this expansion is going ahead under the partnership that sees his party’s three seats propping up an NDP minority government.
“I would be quite unequivocal in saying Kinder Morgan is not going to happen,” he said.
He noted there are several legal challenges, including from the City of Vancouver and the Squamish Nation, against the province’s granting of an environmental certificate for the project. He noted that the Clark government isn’t going to be around any more to defend itself in these challenges.
Mr. Weaver said he’s aware of Mr. Horgan speaking with Mr. Trudeau recently, but that they didn’t address the pipeline.
As for how he expects the federal government to respond to the incoming B.C. government’s opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion, Mr. Weaver said: “I frankly don’t quite care what the prime minister thinks about this. The reality is that British Columbians do not want this.”
A Forum Research poll of 1,061 British Columbians released in March 2017, indicated that 43 per cent thought it would have a positive economic effect, but 50 per cent said it would have a negative environmental impact.
Warren Mabee, an energy expert and professor in Queen’s University’s geography department, said the Constitution gives the federal government jurisdiction on this matter.
“There’s a law that goes all the way back to, I think, the first Constitution Act of 1867, which basically gives the federal government the power to override provincial governments when we’re talking about works that are going to benefit the country,” he said.
He said this power has been invoked many times in relation to things such as highways and railroads. As far as he knows, it has never been used for a pipeline.
However, Mr. Mabee said the Trudeau government is unlikely to be overly aggressive on this issue.
“I don’t think that [the federal government is] going to try to ram this project through. I think that they will focus on process,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re going to mind if this project rolls out for a while.”
Mr. Patterson acknowledged the constitutional argument that favours the federal government in this case. However, based on its record, he said the Trudeau Liberals seem unlikely to force this matter through.
“That’s kind of the sledgehammer approach and not too likely,” he said. “I suspect there’s going to be some sort of process of negotiation. I think our guess would be that there’s not going to be some quick resolution to this, that it’ll play out over the longer term.”
He added that it would be “politically costly, I think, for Trudeau to push this pipeline through, so I would say the advantage is to the new provincial government.”
Greg MacEachern, a lobbyist with Environics Communications and former federal Liberal staffer on the Hill, said the authority on this matter is clearly with the federal government.
“That being said, this is really interesting from a pure-politics perspective,” noting elements such as the pro-pipeline NDP government in Alberta that the Trudeau government wants to stay friendly with and the “slightly unstable NDP/Green government in British Columbia.”
Provincially, the NDP and Greens hold a combined 44 seats in the B.C. legislature compared to Liberals’ 43. Mr. MacEachern said it would only take a few dissenters on the government side to put the B.C. government’s position on this back into question. Federally, the Liberals hold 17 of the 42 ridings in British Columbia.
“That instability may work in the federal government’s favour,” he said. “If you’ve got a riding that’s dependent on jobs that could benefit from the pipeline, you could have someone with a different view than somebody from downtown, urban British Columbia, but you may be in the same party.”
He added that the NDP draws much of its support from unions, some of which might see benefits in the jobs that would come from this pipeline expansion.
Mr. MacEachern said the federal government will likely attempt to reach a compromise with the incoming B.C. government rather than simply impose its will. He said the Trudeau government has a record of maintaining constructive relationships with most provinces.
Mr. Patterson said the B.C. government has “tools” at its disposal that could make realization of this pipeline expansion difficult.
“They can order a new provincial environmental assessment,” he said. “There’s a number of permits that they could either delay or not grant. I think there’s something like 19 legal challenges against the pipeline, and it’s possible for the B.C. government not defend itself in one of those.”
Prof. Mabee said the B.C. government, if it wants to delay the project, could insist on conducting its own environmental assessment, even though the NEB has already done one.
“As I understand it, there’s no binding mechanism that would force the company or the federal government to commit to that, but there’s a strong social pressure to accept any provincial environmental assessment that gets carried out,” he said.
Prof. Mabee questioned how determined the federal government is to push through this particular pipeline expansion if there’s significant resistance.
He noted that there are three major pipeline projects under consideration, but not all of them are needed after production cuts in the oilsands after oil prices collapsed in 2014. Those three projects are the Trans Mountain expansion, the Keystone XL to the United States that President Donald Trump has endorsed, and Energy East that would cross Canada to New Brunswick.
“I think with one pipeline, there’s enough oil and enough demand to make it quite worthwhile,” he said. “Two pipelines, we start to run into challenges. Three pipelines, and I think there’s going to be a lot of fighting over who’s going to move the oil.”
Despite the government’s position, some Liberal MPs have opposed the Trans Mountain expansion, such as Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quandra, B.C.), Terry Beech (Burnaby North-Seymour, B.C.), and Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, B.C.). When the government approved this project in November, Ms. Murray said in statement that it was “incredibly disappointing for me and for many in Vancouver Quadra and British Columbia.”
The Hill Times
Federal B.C. ridings held by Liberals, by order of lowest vote share: