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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

gary mason

The politics behind the go-ahead for the LNG project in B.C. Add to ...

There was good reason that Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was so heartened by the federal government’s approval of a major liquefied natural gas project next door in British Columbia.

It all but guarantees she will be getting the pipeline she so desperately covets.

The decisions that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government faces with regard to the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines were always going to be more about politics than so-called social licence. With the decision this week to green light the Pacific NorthWest LNG enterprise in northern British Columbia, Mr. Trudeau has rendered that catch phrase even more meaningless than it already was.

Ottawa gives conditional approval to Pacific NorthWest LNG project (BNN Video)

Social licence stands for whatever a government feels it needs to do in its own political self- interest.

Opinion: Approval of B.C. LNG project keeps Trudeau’s grand bargain together

Related: Seven things to know about the Pacific NorthWest LNG project

Read more: Pacific NorthWest LNG project stalled by more than 190 federal conditions

Ottawa did attach 190 conditions to its sanction of the LNG endeavour led by state-owned Petronas of Malaysia, including putting a hard cap on carbon emissions that will likely mean the company will have to scale back the size of the operation. And with natural-gas prices being what they are these days, the company could put the project on hold.

Regardless, it will take months for Petronas to determine what impact the stipulations would have on its bottom line.

Still, B.C. Premier Christy Clark was obviously thrilled by the Trudeau government’s approval. “We have finally cleared the last hurdle,” she beamed. Given the riches she insisted would be flowing into provincial coffers from LNG by the end of this decade, Ms. Clark was more than a little anxious to see at least one major project permitted before next spring’s provincial election. She can now say her LNG dream (or at least a scaled-down version) is a step closer to reality, which is better than the alternative.

In return, Ms. Clark had to offer her backing of a national carbon strategy, and agree to raise her province’s own carbon tax accordingly. That was not a difficult thing to do. In fact, it was laughably easy.

British Columbia will not have to raise its own carbon tax until other provinces have reached its current levy of $30 a tonne. It would then have to move its price up in concert with the other provinces. It could be years before that happens. In fact, if British Columbia waits until then, its hope of ever reaching its 2050 greenhouse gas emission targets will be even more fantastical than they already are.

(Which is another irony about this LNG decision: While federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was lauding the environmental protection measures inherent in the conditions being imposed on Petronas, she was ignoring the fact the project will all but ensure British Columbia fails to meet its mid- and long-term GHG reduction goals).

It is likely there was an important quid pro quo attached to the federal government’s support of the Petronas venture: B.C. government support for expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to move Alberta oil to port in Burnaby, B.C.

The B.C. government has attached five conditions for the approval of any new pipeline going across the province, but defining what they truly mean is like nailing jelly to a tree. Now that the province has received approval of its first big LNG project, the parameters it established for pipeline consent have undoubtedly softened.

Rachel Notley understands how the game is played. She knows it would be untenable for Mr. Trudeau’s government to give British Columbia an energy project it desperately craves and then turn around and stiff Alberta. It won’t happen.

Mr. Trudeau will now approve a pipeline project (almost certainly Kinder Morgan’s) for two very important reasons: to show up the federal Conservatives by achieving something they weren’t able to do in 10 years in power; and to help Ms. Notley in her fight against right-wing forces in her province.

The federal Liberals understand that giving the New Democrat Premier a pipeline will help her justify all the progressive measures she has introduced ostensibly to lay the groundwork for just such an announcement: the same measures she takes heat for every day from conservative opponents, who insist that she has added to the financial burden of Albertans while getting zero in return.

If nothing else, this week demonstrated that Mr. Trudeau has reached the point in the life of his administration where the scars of power are formed. It’s easy to sound sunny and optimistic on the campaign trail, to talk about reaching kumbaya-like consensus before decisions are made. But now he has to render judgments on projects that many people oppose – judgments that incite accusations of betrayal.

And those decisions only get more difficult from here on in.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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