National Column: Can the PM move Mountains?

by Chantal Hebert

Notwithstanding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to double down on the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, the plan faces the same hurdles today as it did before he hauled the feuding premiers of Alberta and British Columbia to Parliament Hill for a Sunday meeting.

The federal bid to take a financial stake in the project may ensure it survives – albeit on a publicly funded respirator – beyond the May 31 deadline set by its parent company Kinder Morgan to fish or cut bait.

If Trudeau is willing to pump an unspecific amount of taxpayers’ money in the project in such short order, his government (along with that of Alberta) must have concluded that the risks that the Houston-based company will otherwise walk away are real.

But keeping the pipeline expansion alive with an injection of federal funds will neither detract its opponents from fighting it every step of the way nor eliminate the threat of more litigation.

On the contrary, Trudeau’s promise of new federal legislation to reaffirm Ottawa’s constitutional authority on the file is likely to open yet another front in the legal battle or even to expand the existing one. In Canada, no law – federal or provincial – is immune to a court challenge.

If anything, this weekend’s meeting with the feuding premiers mostly demonstrated the limits of the power of a prime minister to force a province into line. When it comes to Trudeau’s signature climate change compromise, it could be the first of many such demonstrations.

Within the span of the next two years, the prime minister could be facing off in court against as many as six of the 10 provinces – including the four larger ones – over some aspect of his carbon pricing and energy policies.

B.C. premier John Horgan is still determined to refer the question of whether his province has the constitutional competence to regulate the substances that transit through its territory to his province’s highest court.

He will be asking the judges to determine whether Ottawa’s determination to pursue an infrastructure project it decrees to be of strategic national interest can de facto trump the environmental jurisdiction of a given province.

Quebec could join B.C. in court sooner than later. That provinceís main interest is not so much the actual Trans Mountain project as the means Trudeau is contemplating to achieve his ends.

It has been a long-standing Quebec practice – regardless of which of its parties is in government – to challenge moves that could be construed as a federal attempt to expand Ottawa’s constitutional authority at the expense of the provinces. The environment is a shared federal-provincial responsibility.

In an open letter published this weekend, Quebec’s intergovernmental affairs minister, Jean-Marc
Fournier, assured Horgan of his government’s support in the current battle.

At the same time, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are preparing to take the federal government to court over its plan to impose a carbon tax on the provinces whose climate change plans do not meet the greenhouse-gas emissions reduction targets set by Ottawa.

Should Doug Ford’s Tories win this spring’s election they could be joined by Ontario and – in the event of a Jason Kenney victory next year – also by Alberta. It will take more than the few weeks between now and the end of May for the Trans Mountain saga to come to a definitive conclusion.

But it is already possible to start assessing the damage to Trudeau’s consensus-building efforts on the climate change front.

When he initially set out to champion the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Trudeau’s goal was to demonstrate that Canada’s energy ambitions could be reconciled with a national carbon-pricing policy.

In an ideal world, the hope was to turn carbon pricing from the wedge issue that it had been over Stephen Harperís tenure into a non-partisan concept – in the same way, for instance, that political support for the principle of medicare has come to obliterate party lines.

Two years later, the opposite is happening. His support for the Trans Mountain expansion is pitting Trudeau against two of the provinces most aligned with his climate change agenda, the bulk of Canada’s ecological movement and a significant section of the Indigenous leadership. At the same time, political opposition to his carbon pricing policy is become even more entrenched. The prime ministerís efforts on behalf of Trans Mountain will not earn him any gratitude in many pro-pipeline quarters.

At this rate, Trudeau’s legacy could be a precedent that gives future federal governments more leeway to steamroll the environmental obstacles that stand in the way of their development ambitions.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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