Liberals and NDP play both sides on proposed Energy East pipeline

Interviews with critics from both parties produce more questions than answers
Photo: Maureen

Like many media outlets, Ricochet has been trying for months to get a decisive response from both the NDP and Liberals on where they stand on the Energy East pipeline. After conducting multiple interviews and sifting through mountains of contradictory public statements and press reports, we’re no closer than when we started.

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At this time neither the Liberals nor the NDP will offer a clear answer to the question of whether their government would approve the pipeline project.

They both promise to reform the environmental review process, and suggest that doing so will either halt the pipeline in its tracks or conversely help win over Canadians who remain reluctant to support the project.

NDP position still undefined

On July 2, Ricochet spoke with NDP energy critic Guy Caron, following up on an interview conducted in April, when the MP promised his party would release a clear position on the Energy East pipeline by the end of June. He offered no clearer a position than he had in April, though he did repeat his party’s promise to fix a broken environmental assessment process and added that the NDP would impose a “climate test” on any proposed pipeline.

Neither party seems to think their climate plan should include a clear position on the largest pipeline ever proposed in North America.

The day after the interview, five groups of students in cities from Victoria, B.C. to Shédiac, New Brunswick staged sit-ins at the offices of NDP, Liberal and Conservative MPs, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Tom Mulcair (along with an aborted attempt at the office of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau). The students denounced all three major parties for having unclear and insufficient policies regarding climate change.

It highlights the pressure the NDP is under from its traditional base of supporters, who want the party to follow the lead of the scientific community, including the 100 prominent Canadian scientists who called for a moratorium on new development in the tar sands earlier this summer.

Building oil infrastructure that will last 50 to 60 years doesn’t make sense, they argue, if we’re serious about transitioning off fossil fuels. And serious action is required, according to scientists who report that as much as 85 per cent of the oil in the tar sands will need to remain buried if global warming is to be held to only 2° C.

The newly elected Notley government has announced its full support for Energy East, and with NDP fortunes on the rise in Alberta, Mulcair may be reluctant to throw cold water on his provincial cousin’s ambitions. Conversely, the party’s Quebec base would be in jeopardy if they were to publicly support the pipeline.

Who’s in charge of the Liberal position on Energy East?

But the NDP isn’t alone in failing to provide voters with a clear position on what has become a hot topic of social, economic and environmental debate. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau surprised many last December when he told Quebec City’s Le Soleil newspaper that the Energy East pipeline had failed to obtain social licence. The next day, after Ricochet picked up the French story and translated his remarks into English, New Brunswick premier Brian Gallant “clarified” Trudeau’s statements and insisted the Liberal leader supported the pipeline.

It was a curious moment for the Liberal leader, who issued no response to the attempt by a provincial premier to define his position, contrary to his own words, in the national media.

It also wasn’t the first time. In 2013, responding to remarks by Trudeau threatening to block a pipeline if the cost in pollution was too high, Gallant told the New Brunswick legislature, “I spoke to him last night ... and Mr. Trudeau says he is for the west-east pipeline.”

“The Energy East project, like other projects, will never win the approval of the community under the current conditions” - Justin Trudeau

The release of a new interview with French-language Montreal daily Le Devoir will stir up this debate anew, after the federal Liberal leader once again went further in his criticisms of the pipeline in French than he has in English.

In the interview, whose headline translates as “Trudeau predicts a social wall: Liberal leader will take GHG emissions into account when reviewing pipelines,” the MP for Papineau promised to strengthen a broken environmental assessment process and incorporate the climate impact of tar sands oil passing through the pipeline, a pledge echoed by the NDP’s Caron in our interview.

While the Liberal leader refused to take a yes or no position on the pipeline much like his NDP counterparts, he went much further than he had in English in criticizing the pipeline project. Speaking in French (translation is our own), Trudeau predicted that as things are, the pipeline will never pass the test of social acceptability.

“The Canadian government must ensure that our resources make it to market. But in the 21st century, we must also do so responsibly, which means with social approval, in partnership with Indigenous communities and with the approval of the scientific and environmental community. The Energy East project is not on track to obtain that approval, and it will have great difficulty obtaining it.”

Trudeau reportedly went on to say that “the Energy East project, like other projects, will never win the approval of the community under the current conditions.”

Trudeau reportedly went on to explain his view that the government’s role was to establish the playing field, and for him that means an environmental assessment that includes the climate impact of the oil transported by a pipeline.

Ricochet spoke to Halifax MP Geoff Regan, the Liberal critic for natural resources. He explained his party’s position as having always been insistent on the need for social approval of any pipeline project and denied any difference in message between his leader’s statements in French and English.

“The responsibility of government is to take the environment seriously, to have a rigorous process for the review of projects like this. I mean, does it make sense for governments to say in advance ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to anything?”

Underlining the confusion associated with the Liberal position, Regan could not “recall offhand” if his party’s policy included a climate test.

Mixed messages

Trudeau’s position matches that of NDP leader Tom Mulcair, as articulated in a May 6 speech, although it’s unclear who made the climate test promise first, since both parties seem somewhat shy about this commitment.

A climate test on pipelines was first proposed in the Canadian context by the Liberal premiers of Quebec and Ontario, who called for such an assessment of the Energy East pipeline last year. Jim Prentice, Alberta premier at the time, took the next flight east to meet with them. Within a few days both premiers had publicly dropped calls for a climate test.

In his interview with Ricochet, NDP critic Caron stressed that his vision of a real environmental review would include an assessment of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, and an NDP government would not approve a pipeline that failed that review. “Under the current circumstances, we would not be supporting Energy East.”

Love it or hate it, the Conservative position in favour of Energy East is clear as day.

But for a western audience, like the one Tom Mulcair addressed in an interview with the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid on July 5, the message is a little different.

He said he wanted to move the oil from west to east, adding “I know Energy East has not been studied. You cannot say ‘yes’ to Energy East right now, because we don’t have a thorough, credible environmental assessment process. We’ll bring that in. We’ll make sure the public is onside and answer all their questions. It can be done. But you have to be sure that you bring people along.”

So is the intent of the “thorough, credible environmental assessment” to provide an impartial assessment of the climate impacts of a project and reject it if found lacking? Or is the intent to bring the public onside with the project in its existing form?

These parties have positions on other pipelines they’re willing to discuss, and they’re very proud of their environmental commitments in other areas. But neither party seems to think their climate plan should include a clear position on the largest pipeline ever proposed in North America.

Love it or hate it, the Conservative position in favour of Energy East is clear as day. At the other end, so are the positions of the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois in opposition to the pipeline.

But with no clear position from the only two parties likely capable of replacing the Conservatives, Canadians will vote this fall with no idea whether a new government would approve one of the largest, and most controversial, infrastructure projects in Canadian history.

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