Despite controversy, Trans Mountain approval is the only way forward

Only in Canada could the government majority declare a climate emergency one night in the House of Commons and next morning see its cabinet approve a megaproject to channel and ship extracted bitumen abroad.

We are walking, talking contradictions – not necessarily hypocrites, as some suggest, just living amid paradox.

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The Justin Trudeau government might not have completed the full-fledged Indigenous consultations the court directed. It might not have found a buyer for the multibillion-dollar asset that looks more economically stressed by the hour. And it might not have any political dividend coming in the election in four months from its decision Tuesday.

But the shovels are being taken out of the shed to open the ground in the weeks ahead, about which Trudeau had little choice in the realpolitik now guiding his deliberations.

To say no to the resumption of the Trans Mountain twinning pipeline into Burnaby would have been, on balance but not by much, to commit to little progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and much regress as a country in cutting investor confidence. We might as well build a wall for all the international interest we would repel.

Context is everything. For the Trudeau government to make any headway on its climate change targets – already tapered, already bound to fall short of goals that were already themselves tapered, the palliative to what the Commons grieved in its climate declaration – the pipeline needs to be twinned to extract Asian revenue that will reveal the Americans as basement bargainers who held us hostage.

Through the possible but not certain eventual riches the project will help convert the Canadian economy over years, maybe decades, into one in which we can be international leaders as investors in alternative energy.

Some of us will live that long. Few of us are that optimistic. But it is our only feasible way forward.

To leave much-demanded energy in the ground would abrogate responsibility to develop a prosperous economic resource. To import it would be immoral. To continue to sell it to the U.S. at discounted prices would be subservient.

Trouble is, there will be trouble. It would be vastly better if we had divined the full wisdom of Indigenous bands on how to move forward, shared the pipeline’s yield most fully to help emancipate their economies, and viewed the pipeline as a gesture in the early stages of reconciliation. That might come another day.

Instead, what we will see is confrontation and court action amid construction.

In the short term that court action will come as the existing pipeline is saturated and rail shipments practically buckle the tracks. Other pipeline proposals are stalled in U.S. courts and, what’s worse, the appetite for the cheaper Canadian oil at these prices in the short term is not the stuff of Albertan renewal.

Trudeau has known for as long as he has had this file on his desk that the day would come when he would have to make a big, somewhat defiant decision. To back his belief that the Trans Mountain twinning was in the national interest – as do a majority of British Columbians – he would have to shave his climate-change agenda, stake taxpayers to its ownership, and navigate his professed most important relationship with First Nations.

Well, he did it.

It may not be a deal-maker or deal-breaker for his reelection. It will win him nothing more in Alberta and lose him little more in British Columbia.


But if he hadn’t made that call, his post-election position if he were to win a second mandate would be nothing short of destitute: an economy into international recessionary headwinds, investor confidence depleted by governmental ineptitude to build what it considers a national fundamental.

For British Columbia’s government, the toolbox is a bit hollow at the moment. It is pouring funds into forlorn court battles and fighting what it considers a good fight, when the truth is that the oil will come from the ground no matter, trundle hazardously over rail across the province, retail for cut-rate prices and deliver negligibly to an economy that will need the help.

Much as he might chuckle, John Horgan will be a happier camper as an economic steward if the pipeline is built and invests some of its dividends into jobs and royalties for what are largely underdeveloped markets within the province.

Here we go on the next step. It will be the ugliest yet. It is hard to see the winner yet in its midst. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial of Glacier Media.

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