Hebert: Pipeline may be Trudeau’s kryptonite

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Vancouver on Monday adding what is presumably the next-to-last piece to the puzzle of the approval by the federal cabinet next month of an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.

Trudeau announced a more stringent environmental protection regime for British Columbia’s coast.

With Parliament adjourned for Remembrance week, this is the kind of announcement that could have been dealt with at the ministerial level. Trudeau’s cabinet is fanning out across the country this week to preside over dozens of good-news events.

Having the prime minister front the rollout was meant to draw attention to the fact that his government is meeting one of the B.C. government’s key conditions to support Kinder Morgan’s project. B.C. Premier Christy Clark has made her approval of the pipeline expansion contingent on a “world-leading marine spill response” plan.

The hope is that Clark will find Trudeau has provided her with enough political cover to come onside with the bid to bring more Alberta bitumen to tidewater off the greater Vancouver area.

In B.C., as in other regions of the country, Trudeau has political capital to spare. The resilience of his popularity places him in the superhero category.

But even the powers of superman are not limitless.

In practice, Trudeau may well be about to reach for a piece of political kryptonite.

That, at least, is the conclusion anyone would come to after reading the just-released 60-page report of the ministerial panel tasked by the federal government to complement the regulatory approval process of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The three-member panel was not asked to make a recommendation on the way forward. Instead, it delivered a clinical summary of the public opinion landscape in the two provinces directly affected by Kinder Morgan’s pipeline plans. Its findings make for sobering reading.

The report essentially suggests that Trudeau and Clark — if the premier is willing to link arms with the prime minister on this issue leading up to a spring provincial election — are about to walk onto a pipeline minefield.

There is little trace in the panel’s report of the kind of public ambivalence about the Trans Mountain pipeline that is liable to be swayed by a persuasive popular prime minister willing to walk the extra mile on environmental protection.

What the group predictably did find was an Alberta pro-pipeline consensus that spans that province’s political spectrum matched by a no less significant anti-pipeline consensus in B.C.

There was a time, under Stephen Harper, when the Canadian government of the day could look to the United States for some relief from this divisive domestic conundrum. Those days are gone.

This is yet another file that Tuesday’s American presidential election can only complicate.

A Hillary Clinton victory would drive the last nail in the coffin of TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.

That pipeline would link the Alberta oilsands to the refineries of the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. President Barack Obama has vetoed it.

That veto compounded the pressures on the federal government to act as a facilitator for pipelines to get Alberta’s bitumen to tidewater along Canadian routes.

Donald Trump would reverse Obama’s move. But that would be no cause to uncork the champagne. A Trump administration would also turn its back on the Paris agreement on climate change.

Washington’s withdrawal from the latest international protocol on global warming would upset the already delicate balance Trudeau has been trying to achieve between his environment and his energy agendas. He believes a more proactive approach to climate change will translate into more public goodwill on pipelines.

But the recent federal plan to set a national floor price on carbon was drafted under the assumption that the U.S. would comply with the Paris agreement.

Absent an American commitment to reduce greenhouse gas, Canada’s carbon-pricing policy could put its energy industry at a serious competitive disadvantage.

A Trump victory would signal an unprecedented escalation in the pipeline wars, one that would not be contained to the U.S. and its Republican administration.

If, as expected, Trudeau approves a controversial pipeline in B.C. next month, he will be pitting his government against a host of First Nations communities, the environmental movement and scores of his own election supporters.

Depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, he could also find himself standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump on the pipeline front line. Kryptonite indeed!

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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