National Column: Pipeline politics could fuel fiery national crisis

by Chantal Hébert

With the regulatory process on the Energy East pipeline underway, the countdown to what could become Canada’s next big existential crisis is officially on.

As of this week and until the end of the year, the National Energy Board (NEB) is hearing from proponents and opponents of TransCanada’s plan to link Alberta’s oilsands to the Atlantic coast via a 4,600-kilometre pipeline.

From New Brunswick, the panel will be moving on to Quebec, Ontario and points west over the next four months.

But the process is only a warm-up act for an expanding national debate that could rival for its length, but also its divisiveness, the constitutional wars of the early 1990s. Reconciling the economic aspirations of some regions with the concerns for their ecosystems of many of the others will not come easily. If anything, the NEB’s recommendation will pave the last stretch of the way to a high-stake political fight that could impact the future of some of Canada’s leading elected figures.

At the top of the list is British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. She will take her ruling Liberal party to the polls in about nine months. Between now and then, the federal cabinet is scheduled to decide whether to give the green light to Kinder Morgan’s plan to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline.

The project has elicited stiff municipal opposition in the Greater Vancouver area as well as within the aboriginal community. Although her government came down against the project over the course of the NEB hearings, Clark has kept her options open – possibly in the hope of negotiating trade-offs that could bolster her party’s case on the hustings. If the federal government gives Trans Mountain the nod later this year, the issue stands to make the B.C. election the must-watch event of the 2017 political season.

Few would be following a pipeline-driven B.C. debate more closely than Quebec’s Philippe Couillard. He is to next face voters around the time the NEB is expected to make its recommendation to the federal cabinet on Energy East in 2018. Couillard might not have become premier if the last Quebec election had not turned into a referendum on the Parti Quebecois’s sovereignty agenda. He might not fare as well in a plebiscite-style vote on a controversial pipeline development.

In Alberta, the province’s first NDP premier has staked her pro-pipeline agenda on a more rigorous climate change policy. Rachel Notley is betting it will make her provincial counterparts more amenable to facilitating the transport of Western Canada’s oil to tidewater. If only to counter opposition charges that the NDP is not economically competent, she needs a win on the pipeline front.

At the same time, a strong contingent of federal NDP activists would like the party to step in front of the anti-pipeline parade nationally. But that would come at the cost of an open break with the party’s only provincial government and, potentially, with other provincial wings that have power in their sights. It did not help Thomas Mulcair’s cause to be caught in the crossfire at last spring’s party convention. His dismissal did little to resolve the larger issue of the NDP’s place in the pipeline debate.

AD APPROVED BY Ray White (campaign advertising for council)

The Conservatives are increasingly divided on the necessity of putting to a price on carbon. Under Stephen Harper, the notion was considered a heresy. But in his new capacity as Ontario Tory leader, ex-Conservative MP Patrick Brown has been arguing for carbon pricing. In Alberta, Harper’s former go-to minister and now provincial Tory hopeful Jason Kenney has taken the opposite tack. In a future that could see each of them lead his respective province, it would make for an interesting conversation.

And then there is Justin Trudeau’s government. It has been sitting on a fence whose pickets can only become more uncomfortable over time. As prime minister, Trudeau has nodded in the direction of more pipelines on a number of occasions. But little could do more to diminish his appeal to the left-leaning voters who have abandoned the NDP for the Liberals, including many of the Quebec and B.C. voters who have been key to his majority victory than forcing a pipeline through either province.

For the record, the last time an issue caused internal tensions in so many different provincial and federal political quarters, the Meech Lake constitutional accord was on the table.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email