Pipeline politics

Is Trudeau testing the waters for a Kinder Morgan approval?

Two columnists on opposite ends of the country think Liberals will greenlight west coast pipeline
Photo: Taha Ghaznavi

There’s an old saying in politics: once is a coincidence, twice is a plan. In the past 48 hours, two newspaper columnists in different parts of the country have written or tweeted that they have good reason to believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline proposal.

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In a column in Vancouver’s 24 Hours newspaper published online Monday afternoon, Bill Tieleman attributes his belief that Trudeau will approve the pipeline to “a more dispassionate look” at the circumstances and to past statements from government officials.

“The Liberals will point to their ‘balanced’ approach on the environment compared to the Conservatives and spend some political capital on Kinder Morgan, betting that after the initial fury dies down, they will not pay a high price.”

He sounds certain, doesn’t he?

Once could always be a hunch. But then this afternoon, the other shoe dropped.

Lawrence Martin, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, has it from “unreliable sources” that Trudeau will “greenlight Kinder Morgan.”

Martin is known for good Liberal sources and wrote a two-volume biography of Jean Chrétien some years back. Tieleman is closer to the NDP, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he had a buddy or two on Trudeau’s team. He certainly has friends in Alberta’s NDP government.

If two columnists both become abundantly confident of Trudeau’s intention to approve the pipeline within 48 hours of each other, is that a coincidence or a plan?

Which leads to this question: if two columnists, one regional in B.C. and one national in Ottawa, both become abundantly confident of Trudeau’s intention to approve the pipeline within 48 hours of each other, is that a coincidence or a plan?

It’s common in politics for a government to float controversial decisions before committing itself. Rather than announce a policy, leak that you’re thinking about it to a few journalists and see what public reaction is like. If there’s an outcry, rethink the decision. If there isn’t, announce it with confidence there will be little public backlash.

If the Trudeau team did indeed communicate their plans to these two columnists, directly or indirectly, then it indicates that the federal government plans to approve the pipeline.

It also indicates that the government feels uncertain about the decision and could be swayed in the other direction with enough public pressure.

It’s also plausible that the Notley government in Alberta planted this flag with the two columnists, either repeating what Trudeau’s team had told them or spinning the columnists to pressure the feds.

If it is true that Trudeau plans to approve the pipeline, and Martin is also right that the trade-off is a long, slow death for Energy East, then clearly the Trudeau government has been rocked by recent scandals surrounding the National Energy Board process.

Today’s latest revelation that one of two embattled commissioners was found guilty of insider trading in 2014 simply adds to a fraught road for Energy East in Quebec. The conflict scandals coupled with disruptions at the Montreal hearings and renewed calls from local mayors and Indigenous peoples to shut down the process clearly left the government feeling that the problem they would sooner face is hostile residents and First Nations on British Columbia’s coast.

No easy route west

That might not prove to be any easier of a fight than Energy East faces in Quebec. Trudeau promised a total overhaul of the NEB approval process during the election campaign, and explicitly promised that existing projects like Kinder Morgan and Energy East would be subjected to this new process.

Instead, he slapped together a “supplementary process” for Kinder Morgan that has been described as “worse than the National Energy Board.” At hearings held across B.C. for that new process this summer, over 90 per cent of intervenors opposed the pipeline. Nevermind steadfast opposition from First Nations with a strong legal case to block its passage.

And if Trudeau hopes that at least the Kinder Morgan process is free of the type of scandals the Energy East review has attracted, he may be out of luck on that front as well.

One of the three panelists for Trudeau’s special review has been accused of conflict of interest, following allegations of past business dealings with Kinder Morgan and its Canadian spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the latest poll shows 46 per cent of British Columbians oppose Kinder Morgan, while only 40 per cent support it. The supplementary process’ report is due Nov. 1, after which it will be up to the government.

If Trudeau does plan to approve the pipeline, his sunny ways stand to be met by some rather large storm clouds on the west coast.

UPDATED Sept. 7, 2016, at 9:21 EDT with add insider trading information, and 9:57 EDT with due date for supplementary process report.
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