Do Trudeau’s political clouds suggest coming change on federal support for Kinder Morgan pipeline?

Public consultations on 4 proposed heavy oil spill response regulations opportunity to bolster political support for BC Govt

A recent Angus Reid poll suggests Canadian public opinion is split down the middle over construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the West Coast, but opposition is high in the Lower Mainland of BC where Justin Trudeau’s Liberals hold 17 seats. With the Prime Minister’s political stock at a mid-election low and and an election looming next year, will his political travails change his pipeline strategy only 18 months from E-day?

Shortly after Trudeau approved Trans Mountain Expansion in late 2016, anonymous Liberal strategists were quoted saying their modeling calculated only a two to four seat loss in Lower Mainland BC, where the federal Liberals hold 17 seats.

Would that calculation hold today? Maybe not.

The Feb. 22 survey shows exactly half of Canadians on each side of the tiff between Alberta and British Columbia over Premier John Horgan’s suggestion his government might restrict diluted bitumen shipments until more scientific research is conducted on spill responses for heavy crude oil leaks.

BC recently said it plans to refer the matter to the Federal Court of Appeal, which lowered the political temperature somewhat between the neighbouring provinces.

But Horgan plans to ramp up public consultations over the remaining four points (spill response times, geographic response plans, addressing loss of public use from spills (including economic, cultural, and recreational impacts), and maximizing the marine application of environmental emergency regulatory powers) over the spring and summer, keeping the issue front and centre for British Columbians heading into the fall, when Kinder Morgan hopes to begin construction in earnest.

Which makes sense because a fulsome 40 per cent of BC respondents say they see a lot of media about the issue and discuss it with friends and family, while another 34 per cent say they see some coverage and engage in the “odd conversation” about pipelines.

British Columbians are paying close attention.

The poll also shows that 58 per cent of BC voters side with the BC NDP government and 42 per cent with Alberta (one province over, Premier Rachel Notley has the backing of 82% of respondents).

Can Horgan move that needle? If he can, the Prime Minister may be in trouble.

“Trudeau’s position on this issue puts him in conflict with the nearly two-thirds of Metro Vancouver residents (63%) who find their provincial government’s argument more persuasive than Alberta’s and the 42 per cent who oppose the pipeline,” according to the Angus Reid press release.

“If these groups – which overlap significantly – were to abandon the PM’s party in 2019, the Liberals would be hard-pressed to maintain their foothold in the province.”

The survey also found that in “British Columbia, the public is more divided, with nearly half (48%) saying instead that this debate hinges on oil tankers and the potential risk of an oil spill off the west coast,” a point I made in Saturday’s column, and an explanation for why Horgan is pushing hard on the need for more robust spill response regulations.

Reaction to Horgan by the Trudeau Government and industry has been tepid.

The feds have largely echoed Notley’s view that BC is welcome to draft regulations to improve spill response as long as they don’t impinge on federal jurisdiction.

The Canadian Energy Pipelines Association issued a release that received little attention from Vancouver media pointing out that inter-provincial pipelines and marine shipping of crude oil are already subject to robust regulation, spill response on the West Coast is being beefed up via the $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan, and the likelihood of a significant spill is tiny.

The message isn’t getting through, except to Conservatives.

According to Angus Reid, 81 per cent of Canadians who voted for Stephen Harper in the 2015 election say BC is wrong to try to delay twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline to 890,000 b/d.

A small majority (54%) of those who voted for the federal Liberals say BC’s government is in the wrong, while 58 per cent of federal New Democrats support the party’s provincial wing in BC, whose own members are behind it to the tune of 63 per cent.

Why do these numbers matter?

Back in the fall, after TransCanada decided to swallow $1 billion already invested and pulled the plug on the Energy East pipeline, I wrote a number of columns advancing the hypothesis that the Trudeau Liberals engineered the project’s downfall because they didn’t want to fight the 2019 election in Quebec – where Energy East was hugely unpopular – during the National Energy Board review.

Might the same hypothesis hold true on the West Coast?

An Ipsos poll released Saturday shows the Trudeau Liberals behind the Conservatives for the first time since the last election at only 33 per cent, down five points since Dec.

In BC, the Liberals are a point behind the Conservatives (30% vs. 31%).

The Liberals won a 14-seat majority in 2015 and the margin of victory in those ridings was between .2 and 2.5 per cent, according to pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research.

Is it implausible to imagine a panicky Prime Minister’s Office sacrificing Trans Mountain Expansion to shore up those critical 17 seats in the Lower Mainland?

There are good arguments for and against that scenario.

You can bet that in Victoria, the BC NDP brain trust is scheming how to use the upcoming spill response consultation tour to turn up the heat on a floundering federal government.

Some combination of Trudeau, Notley, and industry may want to think about a more effective push back than we’ve seen to date.

At the moment, the political momentum belongs to John Horgan.

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