National Column: Energy East demise changes political landscape

by Chantal Hebert

In light of the contrary feelings the demise of the Energy East pipeline inspired in Calgary and Montreal, this week it is easy to forget that the project was born under a relatively auspicious star alignment in Quebec. Or that political resistance to pipeline developments is hardly exclusive to that province.

Back in 2013, the Parti Quebecois government of Pauline Marois expressed cautious interest in supporting TransCanada’s bid to link Western Canada’s oilfields to the Atlantic coast.

It was only once it was back in opposition that the PQ turned against the pipeline. Even then the party struggled with the decision.

Marois’ immediate successor, Pierre Karl P»ladeau, initially tried to avoid bolting his party’s door shut on TransCanada’s proposal, only to eventually bow to the will of a majority of its members.

Under the original timetable set for the project’s approval it could have been squarely on the radar of next year’s Quebec election.

For PQ strategists, a Quebec-Ottawa showdown over a controversial pipeline stood to offer one of the last best chances to remobilize Quebecers – in particular the environment-sensitive younger voters who have shown little appetite for identity-related policies – behind its independence project.

The Bloc Quebecois similarly went on the Energy East barricades in the hopes of scoring points off the New Democrats.

Whether the PQ and the Bloc’s high hopes for Energy East to become a game-changer in favour of
sovereignty were well founded will never be known. But from a partisan perspective its demise is a net loss to a sovereignty movement in search of a defining irritant between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

At the time of Thursday’s announcement the yet-to-be approved project was not really on most Quebecers’ radars. It certainly is not and was not a factor in the re-election campaign of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, notwithstanding his public show of satisfaction at its termination.

Still, for all the harsh words exchanged between Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Alberta over Energy East, the main political result of its demise is to shift ground zero of the pipeline debate to Western Canada.

For Justin Trudeau’s government, the need to see Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion plan succeed is greater today than prior to TransCanada’s decision to close the books on Energy East.

The British Columbia project is the only major plan left on the drawing board. If the Liberals are serious about wanting to demonstrate that their energy-environment policy mix is a viable one for all regions, they can’t afford for Trans Mountain to suffer the same fate as Energy East.

For Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, whose government is already doing poorly in the polls, the notion that the Trans Mountain project could fail to launch as the result of the efforts of another New Democrat government is a bigger nightmare than the widely expected end of the Energy East saga.

But by the same token, for the minority NDP government of B.C. Premier John Horgan, which depends on the support of the Green Party for its survival, it is politically inconceivable to simply tool down and leave the battlefield.

The Energy East project was meant to be a fallback solution to an issue that has since been transformed both by market realities and by political change in the White House. It is not really a picture-perfect poster child for the increasingly uphill battle involved in bringing big projects to fruition.

Some of the pipeline’s early backers did describe it as the 21st century equivalent of the pan-Canadian railway. But that was really a rhetorical flight of fancy. The days when Canada’s national infrastructure dreams could be achieved with little concern for their ecological consequences or for the sentiments of local communities are not coming back. Nostalgia, in this instance, is misplaced.

That being said, the fact is that Canada’s federal and provincial electoral cycles do make national endeavours difficult to see through to completion.

Just as electoral developments in Quebec and in British Columbia have complicated the task of expanding Canada’s pipeline capacity, so could the next election rounds in Ontario and Alberta mess with Trudeau’s plan to implement a national floor price on carbon emissions without enduring some major federal-provincial turbulence.

If that pattern is familiar, it is because it is the same vicious circle that doomed Canada’s constitutional efforts two and a half decades ago.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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