Justin Trudeau and the realpolitik of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline in British Columbia

Kinder Morgan
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, speaking to Kai Nagata. Photo: Screen shot, Dogwood Initiative.

Trudeau government was always going to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline project

Kai Nagata of BC’s Dogwood Initiative is dismayed by the ” slapdash” three-person panel reviewing the Kinder Morgan pipeline panel, and even hints that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fibbed when he promised during last year’s election to “redo” the project’s federal review. Welcome to realpolitik, kid.

Kinder Morgan
Kai Nagata. Photo: Dogwood Initiative.

Here’s the exchange between Nagata and Trudeau on the campaign trail, as recalled by Nagata:

“All I want to know,” I asked at a campaign stop, “is does your NEB overhaul apply to Kinder Morgan?”

The future Prime Minister didn’t hesitate. “Yes. Yes. Yes. It applies to existing projects, existing pipelines as well,” Trudeau said to me. “Okay, so if they approve Kinder Morgan in January, you’re saying –”

“No, they’re not going to approve it in January,” he said, referring to the National Energy Board’s original timeline. “Because we’re going to change the government. And that process needs to be redone.”

The NEB is being redone, just not as Nagata expected. A “modernization” process was announced several weeks ago. An Expert Panel will be created this summer to consult with Canadians across the country and provide a report with recommendations to Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr by Jan. 31, 2017.

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But the NEB modernization won’t apply to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion project, which was approved by the NEB with conditions in June. The Trudeau government decided it would not ask Kinder Morgan to go through the review process twice. Instead, the Liberals appointed the review panel to spend several weeks consulting with BC voters, but not review presentations or submissions.

A report is being prepared for the federal cabinet, which will make a final decision on the project in December.

Did Trudeau mislead Nagata?

Who knows? And, really, who is that surprised? Politicians say plenty of things during elections campaigns that they have to disavow or modify once their party forms government. Those are the cold, hard realities of governing and always have been.

Anyone old enough to remember the Jean Chretien or Trudeau pere governments knows that the Liberals campaigning and the Liberals governing are two entirely different political animals.

The problem in the case of Nagata and the anti-pipeline crowd in Vancouver is that they have had their way for far too long.

kinder morgan
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The combination of eco-activists and First Nations and their brilliant campaigns against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and the TMX projects completely overwhelmed the proponents, industry, and the Stephen Harper government. Throw in unwavering support from local politicians like Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, equivocation and sometimes outright hostility from Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government, and a lukewarm response from BC voters for many years, and it is fair to say that momentum has long been against pipeline projects.

No wonder the anti-pipeline crowd grew cocky and not a little arrogant about their prospects for victory.

And no wonder they are dismayed by the betrayal from the prime minister they expected to be an ally. Make no mistake, refusing to “redo” the Kinder Morgan review is a knife in the back to Nagata and his colleagues.

But one they should have seen it coming.

Kevin Hanna is director of the UBC Centre for Environmental Assessment Research. He says the Liberal cabinet will almost certainly approve the Kinder Morgan project.

“The additional review process is going to turn out to be quite prescient when you think about the decision with respect to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, where the courts have said that it wasn’t an inadequate consultation process,” he said in an interview.

“So this could go a long way in the case of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline processes of alleviating that– the possibility of that kind of outcome by enhancing and improving consultation and engagement.”

Here are three reasons why Justin Trudeau was always going to approve Trans Mountain Expansion:

One, tax revenue. Liberal governments like to spend and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s first budget forecast five years of deficits totalling more than $113-billion, according to the Globe and Mail. Trudeau is clearly banking on economic recovery to eventually balance the books. And the only Canadian industry capable of generating significant tax revenue in a short time is oil production.

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The math is pretty simple. Canada produces four million b/d of oil, which almost exactly matches pipeline capacity. If the oil sands is to meet its projected growth of one million b/d by 2025, new pipelines are required.

Two, a June Angus-Reid poll showed that 41 per cent of British Columbians supported the NEB’s approval of TMX with conditions and only 34 per cent disapproved. I argued in this column that voters have already granted Ottawa the social license for TMX. That poll must have been music to Liberal ears.

Three, naked political calculation. Trudeau killed Northern Gateway (by banning oil tankers from the coast of northern BC and publicly criticizing the route) in part to provide cover for a TMX approval. When the inevitable criticisms arise after December’s decision, the Prime Minister will point to the much reviled Northern Gateway as proof that he is an environmental warrior just like Nagata et. al.

And let’s not forget that many – maybe the majority – of BC pipeline opponents aren’t likely Liberal voters. Corrigan is a long-time NDP member and is married to an NDP MLA; the last Burnaby election was essentially a referendum on TMX and Corrigan won with 68.5 per cent of the vote. And Robertson used to be an NDP MLA.

But someone in the PMO has counted votes, consulted polling data, rallied the 17 BC Liberal Members of Parliament (most of them from the lower mainland), and decided the Libs can withstand a political hit in Metro Vancouver early in the Trudeau government’s term.

I interviewed Carr a few months ago. He made pretty plain the Liberal plan to build pipelines: “The Prime Minister has said many times that it’s a major responsibility of the Government of Canada to move our natural resources to market sustainably. That’s our objective…”

Sorry, Kai Nagata, but you’ve been played for a sucker by a Canadian government far more politically sophisticated, treacherous, and committed to winning than you imagined.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline project is a done deal.

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