National Column: Pipeline setback harsh blow for Liberals

It’s a rare – perhaps unprecedented – day when so many government priorities come crashing down or are badly bruised with one court decision.

That was the case Thursday for the Justin Trudeau government when a Federal Court of Appeal
brought the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline on the British Columbia coast to a screeching halt.

This cost the Liberals on questions about their government’s economic stewardship, its vaunted Indigenous reconciliation, its climate strategy and the competence of the federal cabinet.

And now we all own a piece of an aging, $4.5-billion pipeline, a bunch of blueprints and a pile of downed tools.

In a stunning confluence of events, the court overturned the National Energy Board and cabinet approval of the Trudeau pipeline expansion on the same day that shareholders with Kinder Morgan, no doubt with huge grins on their face, washed their hands of the project and gave it – lock, stock and legal headache – to the prime minister and Canadian taxpayers.

Even if it only delays the project, the court decision will mean a bigger price tag for the taxpayer, and raise another red flag to foreign investors looking at Canada as a place to do business.

Trudeau had swooped in to buy the pipeline and vowed to forge ahead as a crucial quid pro quo of his national climate strategy. In return for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s provincial carbon pricing plan, Trudeau had vowed to get her bitumen to Asian markets, off the coast of Burnaby, B.C.

Jobs were to be created, Notley would have a victory to take to voters in next year’s provincial election, and Trudeau would continue to have a climate ally in a key province.

That is all now in limbo. Notley remains landlocked, and that figure in her rearview mirror is the anti-carbon-tax Jason Kenney.

It also must pain a government that has hung so much of its credibility on Indigenous reconciliation to be told by a court that its consultation with Indigenous communities concerned about this expansion amounted to little more than note-taking.

“The government of Canada was required to engage in a considered, meaningful two-way dialogue,” the court said in its decision. “However, for the most part, Canada’s representatives limited their mandate to listening to and recording the concerns of the Indigenous applicants and then transmitting those concerns to the decision-makers.”

Dustin Rivers of the Squamish Nation cut to the core, saying the Trudeau government’s “rhetoric around reconciliation has been deemed flawed based on this court decision.”

The court also raised questions about the governing diligence of Trudeau and his cabinet.

Trudeau himself called the NEB review of the Trans Mountain expansion he inherited from Stephen Harper flawed, and he moved to gather more public input and launched further consultations with Indigenous communities affected by the project.

But it was the equivalent of putting a bandage on a gaping wound and ultimately, the cabinet signed off on something it should not have, the court ruled. The NEB review was so flawed, the court said, that the cabinet had no right to use it as a basis to green-light the project.

They approved a project that did not take into account increased tanker traffic as a result of the expansion, a point repeatedly driven home by opponents.

The court floated one lifeline to the government, saying Indigenous concerns are specific and focused, so consultation with them can be “brief and efficient.”

But proper Indigenous consultation could result in proper reasons to kill it. A hard look at the environmental effects of tanker traffic off the coast of Burnaby could also lead to reasons to deep-six the expansion.

And “brief” is rarely used in the same sentence as “environmental assessment” and “Indigenous consultation.”

In the upside-down-world of government messaging, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the court justified the government’s purchase of the pipeline expansion project in the first place because only the government has the wherewithal to “de-risk” the project.

Morneau said the government moved in because it saw the risks and it will double down, formally closing the deal with Kinder Morgan as early as Friday and taking the courtís prescribed path to do right on the environment and consultation, get the expansion going and then try to sell it back to the private sector.

He really has no option. But the Liberals must hope they can find a way to “de-risk” this project before it becomes part of a highly risky bid for re-election.

Oh, to be a Kinder Morgan shareholder.

Woe to be a Canadian taxpayer.

Twitter: @nutgraf1
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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