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, suggests his environment minister.
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.
BC 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 BC.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley responded by threatening legal action, cancelling talks to buy electricity from BC and then, most recently yesterday, banning imports of BC wine.
Politically, Notley needs the pipeline built to have any hope of re-election next year; BC 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 the Trudeau government to intervene, and to do more to get the pipeline they approved actually built. Deputy federal Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said Trudeau has the constitution on his side when exerting federal power to get construction underway.
Trudeau said in Edmonton last week he wasn’t going to wade into “disagreements between the provinces in this case” but that his government approved the pipeline and was going to get it built.
What remains unclear, however, is how the government plans to make that happen.
“We’re continuing to discuss and engage with the BC government, with the Alberta government,” the prime minister said today 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.”
Conservative Natural Resources critic Shannon Stubbs said it’s unfair to Kinder Morgan, the company trying to build the pipeline, that the project has taken four years to go through the federal assessment process, then another 15 months since federal approval _ and its fate still hangs in the balance.
“I don’t think it’s clear if the prime minister or the natural resources minister have ever spoken to the B.C. premier about this,” she said. “They have to champion this project.”
Kinder Morgan had to ask the National Energy Board to intervene when the city of Burnaby refused to give permits to start construction on the pipeline and the marine terminal where it ends. The board had to override Burnaby’s jurisdiction to grant the permits, saying it was withholding them incorrectly.
Kinder Morgan is also awaiting approval on its final route for the pipeline expansion before it can begin construction. Initially, Kinder Morgan hoped the $7.4-billion expansion would be up and running by the end of 2019; last month it revised that to December 2020.
Stubbs said she suspects BC is trying to undermine the project enough to discourage Kinder Morgan from proceeding.
The dispute comes just as the federal government prepares to unveil a long-promised overhaul of the environmental assessment process.
After two years of consultations, focus groups, expert panels and discussion papers, McKenna and an army of other cabinet ministers will fan out across the country Thursday to promote the legislation, which is expected to create a single assessment system for all projects.
The hope is to provide clarity for investors and project proponents to know exactly what they’ll have to do to get a project approved and how long it will take.
There will be no surprises in the legislation, McKenna said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, said the fight over Trans Mountain would not be happening if the Liberals had delivered earlier on their long-promised overhaul.
The coming changes help illustrate the difficulty the Liberals have had trying to claim middle ground on the environment and the economy, said Stubbs.
During question period this week, Natural Resources Minister Jim 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, she noted.
“Is it any wonder then their defence of the issue is lukewarm?”