OTTAWA — The federal government needs more face time with the main players in the Trans Mountain pipeline impasse to push the controversial expansion project forward, says Finance Minister Bill Morneau — a sentiment his boss obliged in dramatic fashion Thursday, moments before jetting off to Peru.
The door to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Airbus was barely closed before word emerged that he’d be back in Ottawa on Sunday to meet with the warring premiers of Alberta and B.C., hoping to rescue the $7.4-billion project and defuse one of the most politically perilous crises of his time in office.
The government has every legal right to press ahead with the expansion, but the road blocks being thrown up by B.C. Premier John Horgan — emboldened by environmental groups — demand more talks with the provinces and pipeline architect Kinder Morgan, Morneau said in Toronto.
“Certainly there are legal and regulatory obstacles that have been creating financial risks to this project, and we need to consider how we as a federal government can absolutely assure that this moves forward,” he said.
“We will be considering all options.”
Trudeau will sit down Sunday in Ottawa with Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley — a diversion from his original itinerary, which had him flying directly to Europe from Peru, where he’s attending the 8th Summit of the Americas, beginning Friday.
Trudeau has held several phone conversations with both leaders in recent days and weeks — two with each just in the last few days, officials said Thursday — but critics have been pushing him for an in-person meeting, particularly with Horgan, whose opposition is the main reason for Kinder Morgan’s cold feet.
Horgan has pledged to do whatever it takes to kill the pipeline; earlier this year, he floated the idea of a regulation that would limit how much oil could flow through it. Ottawa has jurisdiction over pipeline projects, but a legal challenge on that score would mean more delays.
B.C. is also party to a lawsuit that alleges Ottawa failed to properly consult Indigenous communities and other stakeholders in approving the pipeline. A B.C. judge is expected to rule on that any day now.
In the meantime, Ottawa wants to reassure spooked investors after Kinder Morgan declared earlier this week it would freeze spending on the project until sufficient assurances could be made. The company has given the government a deadline of May 31 to convince it to go ahead.
An emergency cabinet meeting Tuesday yielded no specific results, but Morneau’s involvement suggests the government is leaning towards a financial solution. Any direct investment, assumption of risk or financial penalty against B.C. would have to go through him.
“Anything that we do needs to be fiscally and financially responsible,” Morneau said. “Those methods to get there are contingent on understanding as well as we can all of the different risks and hurdles so that we get to an outcome that assures we can move forward in the time frame we’ve identified.”
The government has already rejected the idea of asking the Supreme Court to reaffirm its jurisdiction, fearing the risk of raising doubts the government itself does not have.
Any hopes, however remote, that Trudeau’s Sunday meeting might have eased tensions were dashed by day’s end Thursday.
“There is one and only one solution, and that solution is that the pipeline gets built without delay,” Notley said in Edmonton.
She also stood by her threat to introduce legislation that would allow her to curtail oil shipments to B.C., among other retaliatory measures — a move that would surely cause a spike in gas prices west of the Rockies.
Officials are still hashing out the terms and agenda and other specifics of Sunday’s meeting, she added.
Horgan, for his part, expressed relief Ottawa hadn’t clawed back any funding, but stood by his see-you-in-court threat.
“I’m doing what I said I would do and that’s defend B.C.’s coast,” he said. “We’re doing it in a lawful manner and there’s nothing to stand down from. We are in court, we’re going to stay in court. We’re putting forward a reference; I welcome Alberta and Canada to join us.”
Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservatives, said a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau ”should have happened months ago.”
“John Horgan came to office nine months ago on an explicit promise to use every tool available to stop the pipeline,” Kenney said. ”They have pursued that policy of obstruction every day since then and our prime minister has been missing in action.”
Trudeau posted a new video Thursday in which he insisted he would never approve pipelines like the Trans Mountain expansion if he did not believe they could proceed safely.
In the video, Trudeau strolls along a B.C. beach with Ocean Networks Canada CEO Kate Moran and Rob Stewart, president of B.C. Coast Pilots, extolling the virtues of the government’s $1.5-billion oceans protection plan.
That plan, he says, gives the government the confidence that Canada’s oceans and coastlines will be fully protected from any risks posed by a new, expanded pipeline.