National Column: B.C. pipeline faceoff underscores PM’s climate contradictions

by Thomas Walkom

The latest pipeline faceoff between Alberta and British Columbia is more than a constitutional tussle.

It is also a reminder of the unresolved contradictions within Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate-change policy.

More specifically, it is a reminder that the core of that policy – the assertion that carbon emissions can be adequately reduced without significant economic cost – is simply not true.

The Alberta-B.C. brouhaha is over Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would vastly increase the amount of tar sands oil moving to the Pacific coast.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and her New Democratic government desperately want that pipeline expansion in order to keep the province’s high-cost oilsands industry competitive.

B.C. Premier John Horgan and his minority NDP government equally desperately do not want it.

In part, that’s because they need the support of the anti-pipeline Greens to stay in power. But in part, it is because the project is deeply unpopular in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Residents worry that shipping more bitumen to the coast would vastly increase the likelihood of beach-fouling oil spills.

This week, the B.C. government announced a proposed regulation that would prevent more bitumen entering the province until an assessment on the danger of spillage can be done.

A furious Notley threatened to take B.C. to court, arguing that the move was an attempt by Horgan’s government to regulate in an area – interprovincial pipelines – over which it has no constitutional authority.

Sitting quietly on the sidelines (and hoping to stay there) is Trudeau’s federal Liberal government. It does have the constitutional authority to regulate interprovincial pipelines and has already OK’d the Kinder Morgan expansion.

Indeed, that expansion was supposed to embody the great climate-change bargain that Trudeau promoted: Pipelines could be built, but only if their builders had social licence to do so. That social licence would include a commitment to reduce carbon emissions in order to fight climate change.

Notley brought in a carbon tax. Trudeau approved Kinder Morgan. This was supposed to be the model of how measures to reduce greenhouse gases could coexist with economic growth.

The bargain didn’t work. In part, this was because opposition to Kinder Morgan was based on more than climate change. But in part it was because the premise behind the bargain was false.

Seriously battling climate change does carry a cost. True, ignoring climate change carries a greater cost. But it is naive to think that the transition away from a high-carbon world will be painless.

In a roundabout way, the Trudeau government seems to understand this. But it appears to believe (perhaps correctly) that Canadians are unwilling to pay these transition costs.

And so it settles for half measures. In opposition, the Trudeau Liberals dismissed then prime minister Stephen Harper’s carbon emission goals as grossly inadequate. In government they embraced them.

Even then, these goals are far from being met.

The Trudeau government announced a national carbon tax to reduce emissions. But experts say that the tax as planned is far too low to get the job done – that it won’t discourage Canadians from high-emission activities, such as driving gasoline-powered cars.

The federal government tabled its formal carbon tax bill last month. But here too it backtracked, allowing big breaks for large industrial emitters.

The government’s caution is understandable. Fighting climate change carries a political as well as an economic cost.

But if climate change is as dangerous as scientists say, then boldness is required. Compromises, like the one behind the ongoing Kinder Morgan political soap opera, just don’t cut it.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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