OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau faces a restive country enduring protests and rail blockades over a proposed B.C. pipeline. Yet another energy project threatens to deepen his political woes and could put him offside with his own MPs.
In the words of one Liberal MP, the looming decision by the federal cabinet whether to OK the Teck Resources’ Frontier oilsands project is a “no win” for the prime minister.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who backs the $21-billion project, has declared it a litmus test of Ottawa’s new post-election focus on the economic woes facing the West.
Yet those opposing the development hold it up as a different test, of the environmental credentials of the Liberal government and their commitment to combat climate change, as championed in the election campaign just last fall.
There’s another worrisome dynamic for the prime minister — approving the project would almost certainly roil relations with a sizable number of Liberal MPs concerned that such a decision would undermine the party’s environmental agenda.
“There is an animus in the caucus where they are a bit exercised about this. It’s primarily on environmental grounds that we are being hypocrites,” one Ontario Liberal MP told the Star this week.
“There’s very little upside and a whole bunch of downside,” said the MP, who spoke on background because he was discussing caucus matters.
The proposed project was the topic of a lively discussion at a recent meeting of Liberal MPs. There was debate about its economic benefits and whether it would deliver the promised jobs, according to one MP at the meeting. Some weighed the potential political fallout, saying that approval would risk alienating Liberal supporters. Some questioned whether it would even become a reality, given current depressed oil prices.
Some Liberal MPs argue that they’ve already made one big political concession with the government’s 2018 purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, a move made to ensure its expansion. Just last week, Finance Minister Bill Morneau was forced to defend the merits of the project following news that the expansion cost had ballooned to $12.6 billion.
Quebec MP Joël Lightbound told reporters that it’s “fundamental” that Canada achieve the greenhouse gas targets set in Paris, though he added it wasn’t meant as a comment on this specific project.
Toronto MP Adam Vaughan has given strong hints that he’s opposed to the project, saying he has “significant” concerns about its impacts.
“We’ve made commitments on climate change. We’ve got commitments to our children on climate change. We have action to take on climate change. It’s been too slow coming and so on that front … I think I’ve become, if anything, even a stronger environmentalist,” Vaughan told reporters before Parliament rose for its February break. “I think you can tell where I stand on the project.”
The Ontario MP who spoke on background said that Trudeau has to take all those views into consideration, especially in a minority Parliament.
“I don’t think he has any choice. … It’s a difficult decision, it’s a political decision and he has to keep caucus a lot happier than he used to,” he said.
“If people don’t feel that they’ve been consulted and listened to, that will create other difficulties for him,” he said.
The proposed oilsands mine in northeast Alberta would produce some 3.2 billion barrels of bitumen over its projected 40-year lifespan. A joint Alberta-federal review endorsed the project but cautioned that it would have “significant” adverse impacts on the natural environment and would be a “large” producer of greenhouse gases that could hinder Canada’s ability to meet its targets.
“Although we find that there will be significant adverse project and cumulative effects on certain environmental components and Indigenous communities … we consider these effects to be justified and that the Frontier project is in the public interest,” the review said.
Those benefits include thousands of jobs to build the facility and then operate it along with the $70.5 billion in taxes and royalties its forecast to produce for federal, provincial and municipal coffers.
But there are serious political considerations for Trudeau if cabinet rejects the project, a decision that could further inflame already heightened tensions with Western Canada.
The Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the October election, prompting Trudeau to make healing regional rifts a post-election focus.
Toronto MP Chrystia Freeland was named intergovernmental affairs minister and made deputy prime minister as a show of the government’s high-level commitment to national unity issues and navigating energy and climate change issues.
Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, a former minister of natural resources, was made special representative for the Prairies. He’s called the Teck Frontier proposal an “important” project.
“We’re spending a lot of time talking to people and listening to people and looking at the very important balance between environmental stewardship and Indigenous partnerships and economic growth,” he told reporters earlier this month.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Trudeau, the Alberta premier argued the merits of the Teck Frontier project, called for its “timely approval” and warned that a negative decision would have a chilling effect on energy development.
And he warned that rejection “could raise roiling Western alienation to a boiling point.”
A decision is due by the end of February. The issue has been debated at a cabinet committee and is expected to go to a full meeting of cabinet in the coming weeks.
Trudeau is not blind to the risk that a “yes” decision could put him at odds with Liberal MPs, said one official.
“You have to listen to caucus. These are the values why people decided to run and won on … If you listen to those values, it’s hard to say ‘yes’,” said one official, who spoke on background because he wasn’t not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Cabinet could approve the project but such a decision would require stringent measures imposed on the proponent, like those laid out by Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson this week, the official said. It would also require commitments by the province of Alberta on the climate change front, like what Kenney proposed with his pledge to cap emissions at 100 megatonnes a year.
In his letter, Kenney offered Trudeau an olive branch, saying that Alberta “stands willing” to work with Ottawa on climate change. “We do not dispute the need to reduce emissions,” the premier wrote.
There’s concern in government circles that whatever the decision, the fallout will distract from the Liberals’ climate-change agenda.
“We’re concerned that the noise it will create will take momentum away from the climate progress we are making,” said the official.