Rein in pipeline rhetoric
It’s understandable that Stephen Harper finds the prospect of a $12- billion Energy East TransCanada pipeline to be “very, very exciting.”
For the prime minister, the pipeline means jobs and jobs mean votes in 2015, and that surely excites Harper.
But for anyone watching the prime minister recently using his bully pulpit to talk up the benefits of the project and sing the safety of pipelines in Quebec and New Brunswick, an obvious concern arises.
How can we believe in the integrity of a “science-based” environmental study of the pipeline when Harper is not only cheerleading for the project, but has left final approval in the hands of his cabinet?
It is just this type of unlevel playing field — streamlined environmental review process, political approval getting way ahead of the regulator’s appraisal, the evangelical fervour and the nation-building rhetoric from the oil industry and politicians — that galvanized opposition on the West Coast against Harper.
It is also the over-the-top political proselytizing from Harper and his key ministers, and the misreading of U.S. politics, that has thrown approval of the Keystone XL in doubt.
Neither the Northern Gateway nor Keystone is dead, but the future for both is cloudy.
If we are witnessing the federal government overplaying its hand on Energy East, sparking opposition from the environmental lobby, First Nations and, perhaps, Quebec, we will be watching a government go down swinging, strike one, strike two, strike three all in one mandate.
We are only 20 months removed from one of the Harper government’s worst communications pratfalls, on the eve of regulatory hearings on the giant Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in British Columbia.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver went after “radical environmentalists” who he claimed were trying to hijack the country’s regulatory system with their ideological agenda, using “jet-setting celebrities” and “foreign special interest groups” to further their goal.
Harper, before Oliver went off, told Global TV in Vancouver that there are environmentalists who would oppose any project and paid only lip service to environmental assessment and First Nations consultations.
Then-environment minister Peter Kent continued the communications fiasco by accusing charitable environmental groups in Canada of “laundering” funds from offshore donors to obstruct Canada’s environmental assessment process.
Keystone is so bogged down in domestic U.S. politics that President Barack Obama is reluctant to even nominate an ambassador to Ottawa because Republicans would likely put a “hold” on his or her appointment to try to force Keystone approval.
A Nebraska court will hear a case Sept. 27 in which three landowners claim the state legislature acted unconstitutionally in allowing the governor to approve the pipeline route. If they win, TransCanada could be forced to redo its entire route selection process, adding years to the project and essentially taking it out of Obama’s hands.
All this after a parade of Harper ministers travelled to Washington to preach the obvious simplicity of Keystone approval, including Harper’s infamous claim that approval was a “no-brainer.”
A man who wrestled over the foreign takeover of the Saskatchewan potash industry for political reasons should have been able to fathom the politics of pipeline approval by the U.S. president.
Energy East does have the best prospects of the trio.
Under the proposal, TransCanada would move crude from Alberta to Quebec and New Brunswick for use in eastern refineries and export. It can use existing pipeline capacity through Ontario, needing to build a new line only in Quebec and New Brunswick. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois would have a better chance of selling the project at home if she negotiated with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, not a flag-waving prime minister.
TransCanada took out full-page newspaper ads over the weekend promising economic benefits, but also pledging to build long-term relationships with landowners, local residents, First Nation and Métis communities.
TransCanada will have to learn lessons from its heavy-handed expropriation of land in the U.S. for Keystone, and it will have to learn from Enbridge which badly underestimated opposition to the Northern Gateway.
The Harper Conservatives have to tamp down their giddy enthusiasm and act more as responsible stewards of the economy and environment who will actually listen to independent assessments of the project.
Energy East is going up against a population that has never been more aware — or wary — of the safety and environmental dangers of pipelines and if this is sold as a fait accompli, opposition will galvanize, as it should.
The Conservatives have seen it happen on the West Coast and the United States. If it happens again, they have only themselves to blame.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs columnist.