Call it quantum politics. On the same weekend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the Paris Agreement at a special UN session in New York, his Liberal government began to seemingly walk back a key election promise that stood in contrast to the Harper government’s reckless approach to climate change.
The story began to come out late last week, when the Globe and Mail published a report that high-level negotiations between the B.C. and Alberta governments included a potential quid pro quo that would see Alberta buy more power from the Site C Dam in B.C.’s northeast in exchange for easier pipeline access to the Pacific coast.
Notley and Trudeau walk back opposition to Northern Gateway
The B.C. government has formally opposed both the Northern Gateway and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipelines in submissions to the National Energy Board, but have left the door open to “getting to yes” provided its five conditions are met.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, for her part, has begun to reconsider her opposition to Northern Gateway. Alberta Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd has been blunter: “We’re in favour of all pipelines, to be honest.”
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Trudeau stood at the UN podium and solemnly vowed, “With my signature, I give you our word that Canada's efforts will not cease…. Climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge."
Then he headed to Kananaskis, Alberta, for a retreat with his federal government colleagues and a meeting with Premier Notley. He didn’t take media questions after the private visit, but Notley told reporters that she felt Trudeau was “aligned” with her province’s push for new pipelines.
At the same time, over the weekend some of Trudeau’s ministers began letting the media know that, contrary to the Liberals’ word during the election campaign, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was back on the table as an option for easing the barriers to expanding the tar sands and getting more Alberta bitumen to the coast.
This is a major development, given the wall of opposition to Northern Gateway in B.C., the multiple First Nations with active court cases against the federal government over this proposed mega-project, and, perhaps most significant, Trudeau’s own history of unambiguous statements opposing this particular pipeline.
In this video recorded in Vancouver several years ago, for example, Trudeau explains that he is “absolutely opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline.”
This was no one-time flourish. In 2014, right after the Conservatives approved Northern Gateway, Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa “the Northern Gateway Pipeline will not happen” if he became prime minister. Trudeau also repeatedly pledged during last fall’s election campaign to impose a moratorium on oil tankers on B.C.’s north coast. Because of these clear promises, many observers considered Trudeau’s defeat of the Harper government the final nail in Northern Gateway’s coffin.
Today, however, it appears the Liberals are hedging about the meaning of their promised moratorium. Bloomberg reports that Transport Minister Marc Garneau said: “It’s a formalized moratorium and, when we have worked out exactly what that means, we’ll let you know.” Asked in a separate interview by Bloomberg whether the moratorium would mean the end of Northern Gateway, Garneau refused to commit, stating, “It’s premature to say anything.”
NDP MP Nathan Cullen, whose riding includes the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline terminus in Kitimat, wasted no time taking to social media to blast the Liberals.
“Trudeau once said ‘the Northern Gateway pipeline will not happen’ and twice voted for our north coast tanker ban,” Cullen wrote on Facebook. “I'm on Haida Gwaii and the people here, who believed those words are hurt and angry by what the Liberals are doing.”
“This is the opposite of reconciliation. The opposite of leadership and the opposite of what Canadians voted for on October 19th.”
Zombie pipelines and dirty politics
But is the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline really back from the dead? Or is this all part of a larger political game?
“Premier Notley is facing political pressure to expand the oil sands, for which the oil producers would like another pipeline,” Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative told Ricochet. “They certainly don't need three. But if she says she wants all pipelines built and comes home with one, she will have outdone all her Conservative predecessors and, she hopes, revived her chances at winning a second term in government. This is a move driven less by economics and more by her raw political survival instinct.”
Nagata believes all the recent talk about Northern Gateway may have more to do with the push to win public support for Trans Mountain, which the NEB is set to rule on next month.
“Premier Notley is already making a 'lesser of two evils' argument when it comes to Enbridge and Kinder Morgan. The strategy here appears to be: sacrifice one, so that others may live. But for the sacrifice to appear meaningful, they have to pretend Enbridge isn't dead already. Hence the attempts to resuscitate Northern Gateway.”