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If Canada wants pipelines built, five hard truths are in order. (ANDREW CULLEN/REUTERS)
If Canada wants pipelines built, five hard truths are in order. (ANDREW CULLEN/REUTERS)

DAVID MCLAUGHLIN

If Canada wants pipelines built, five hard truths are in order Add to ...

David McLaughlin was the last president and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. He is a volunteer advisor to the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association’s Integrity First program.

Energy East was hailed as nation building when first announced. A “game changer” no less. Today, its reputation has been as blackened as the oil it transports.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is getting a lot of bad press for his very public opposition to the Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick, and fraying of national unity in the process. He should. But he did not start it.

Albertans looking for a “villain” can follow any number of points on the compass: west, south, plus east for the cause of this célèbre.

Let’s start west. “Canada Starts Here,” proclaimed British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in 2011 in a paint-over bid to rebrand her party and government.

Less than a year later, she announced five conditions that needed to be met before British Columbia would approve the Alberta-B.C. Northern Gateway pipeline. “Canada Stops Here” seemed more appropriate. Ms. Clark went on to win re-election with her “five conditions” as a key platform plank.

Looking south, U.S. President Barack Obama stalled then killed the Keystone pipeline from Alberta to the southern U.S. states. Re-election politics drove its delay; legacy politics ensured its demise.

Despite its eastern nomenclature, Energy East had faced some tough sledding in both Ontario and Quebec before Mr. Coderre’s self-serving outburst. Ontario has mandated its own review of pipeline projects beyond the required National Energy Board’s assessment, as has Quebec. Each signalled a distinct provincial interest in the outcome by doing so and non-confidence in traditional federal processes.

Further east, in New Brunswick, the ultimate terminus of the pipeline at the Irving Oil Refinery, the current Liberal provincial government has waxed hot and cold on the project. Despite the economic boost it promises, its potential environmental impact must be considered first, it states.

Our new Prime Minister has found himself in a debate he both inherited and validated. Justin Trudeau inherited a polarized debate on climate change, oil sands and pipelines, entrenched in no small way by that disappearing phrase in his controversial Davos speech, “my predecessor,” Stephen Harper. He validated the debate by twinning his energy policy to environmental and indigenous policy shifts that are meant to be more welcoming to these concerns.

If Canada is to navigate its way forward and get these pipelines built, five hard truths are in order.

First, the climate-change ship has sailed. There is no going back on de-linking pipelines from not just the usual environmental concerns about local spills but from the broader fossil-fuel contribution to greenhouse– gas emissions and climate change.

Carbon budgets – what the world can afford to burn in carbon emissions and not surpass 2 degrees Celsius of warming (let alone 1.5 Celsius) – was validated at the Paris climate talks. It is no longer fringe but increasingly central to likely national climate policies with our major trading partners and allies.

Second, relatedly, assured market access for Canada’s oil via pipelines depends on a national climate-policy overlay. The lack of it was cited repeatedly as a barrier to pipeline approvals. It is time to take that card away from pipeline opponents.

Third, First Nations and indigenous concerns about environmental impacts and land claims are not corollary, but central issues for resolution. The “duty to consult” indigenous peoples on these projects cannot be sidelined forever. Local First Nations can delay, if not necessarily kill, new pipeline development well beyond industry expectations.

Fourth, it was not better for pipelines before Mr. Trudeau took office. Full-throated defence of the sector by the Harper government and sullying of anyone who thought differently managed to offend many, stroke some and negligibly advance projects. The same today will produce the same results.

Fifth, and finally, imposing new regulatory rules for NEB review of pipelines at a time when oil prices are low and the energy industry is hurting would engender as much opposition if the opposite was true. Few in the sector were calling for such measures a year ago.

The elevation of Energy East to the status of a national unity icon is profoundly unhelpful yet fully understandable. Alberta is hurting economically. A lot. This hurts Canada. A lot.

“Why should I sell your wheat?” asked an earlier Mr. Trudeau to much offence in Western Canada.

“Why I want to sell your oil,” should be offered by today’s Mr. Trudeau to a beleaguered Alberta and fractious country to set everyone straight.

In the meantime, get used to the tough love.

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