National Column: East and West on same side of pipeline debate

by Chantal Hébert

When all is said and done, there is no rational reason for this week’s climate-change gathering of first ministers in Vancouver to feature an East-West brawl over pipelines.

Unless the premiers of the energy-producing provinces are irresistibly inclined to lead a charge on windmills, they have no reason to get on their high horses in order to cast themselves as champions of their resources industry.

When it comes to the pipeline agenda, there are no irreconcilable differences between Canada’s first ministers. Remarkably, to a man and a woman, the premiers and the prime minister are all sold on it.

To varying degrees they all subscribe to the notion that getting more Western Canada oil to tidewater is in the economic interest of the country. Challengers of that perspective are few and far between in the Canadian political mainstream and none currently sits at the federal-provincial table.

The wide pro-pipeline consensus includes Quebec’s Philippe Couillard. This week, he has been painted in some media and political quarters – including in the corridors of the Saskatchewan government in Regina – as a black sheep for insisting the Energy East project live up to Quebec’s environmental standards.

And yet that is not even a position Couillard arrived at readily. The province’s hand was at least partly forced by events. Sadly, for those who would not let a few facts get in the way of a good West-versus-East plot line, those events mostly took place in British Columbia.

A few years ago, the B.C. government left the responsibility to assess the environmental impact of the Northern Gateway pipeline to the National Energy Board. It based that decision on the argument that interprovincial projects such as pipelines fall squarely under the constitutional authority of the federal government.

B.C. did submit some conditions for supporting Northern Gateway to the federal panel. Most of them were eventually tossed aside by Stephen Harper’s cabinet when it gave the pipeline the final go-ahead – almost.

In between the two decisions, some First Nations groups took the province to court. In mid-January, the B.C. Supreme Court found the province had abdicated its responsibilities when it declined to conduct its own assessment of the pipeline. It said Christy Clark’s government did have the legal duty to ensure its environmental standards were respected.

“British Columbia, within its own jurisdiction, has unique objectives, political and social goals and legal obligations,” the court concluded.

“It cannot be the intention of the legislators to allow the voice of British Columbia to be removed in this process for an unknown number of projects, when the purpose behind the EAA (Environmental Assessment Act) is to promote economic interest in this province and to protect its land and environment.”

A similar train has been barrelling down the legal track in Quebec.

The provincial decision to seek an injunction to require TransCanada to submit to the Quebec environmental regulatory process comes as a coalition of environmental groups is asking a court to force Couillard’s government to do a full-fledged assessment of the Energy East pipeline.

Like his B.C. counterpart, Couillard has to manage pipeline-wary public opinion and the pipeline-averse official opposition.

If it is to make headway on the project with Quebecers, the last thing the Liberal government needs is to be seen to be dragged by the courts to the task of exerting due diligence on its environmental impact.

Notwithstanding the spin from Conservative quarters in Saskatchewan, Alberta and at the federal level, there are no magic shortcuts to getting shovels in the pipeline ground.

For a decade, Harper’s government claimed it had found some. But those shortcuts have all led to quagmires. Pretending that a mess that could pave the way to decades of litigation does not exist will not make it go away.

A final word: it may be time for pipeline proponents to drop the tired comparison between projects such as Energy East and the 19th-century building of Canada’s national railway.

Does anyone seriously believe it helps the pipeline cause to harp back to a time when governments and corporations felt invested with a quasi-divine right to displace aboriginal communities as they saw fit and when the words sustainable and development were a century away from being routinely paired?

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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