Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a brewing crisis on his hands. Just as energy was at the centre of one of his father's most troublesome files when he ran the country decades ago, it has quickly produced a watershed moment for his son's administration as well.
And just as the issue created ill feelings between Albertans and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, ones that persisted long after he left office, it has the potential to wreak the same type of havoc on Justin Trudeau's relationship with many Westerners.
The problem is the increasingly desperate situation in which Alberta finds itself trying to get its oil to new markets. To do that it needs pipelines and access to tidewater, on either the East or West coast. But the province is discovering it has very few allies in the country in its bid to make these pipelines a reality.
This week, the mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, vowed to fight Energy East, a project that would see Alberta crude carried to a refinery in New Brunswick. Mr. Coderre was speaking on behalf of the Montreal Metropolitan Community, an association that represents 83 municipalities and nearly four million inhabitants. It is a serious, if not fatal, blow to Alberta's hopes of getting this route developed – one that generally has been viewed as having the best chance of any of the pipeline projects on the drawing board.
Barack Obama killed Keystone. Enbridge's Northern Gateway scheme to the West Coast is alive in name only, thanks in part to opposition from Mr. Trudeau himself. There is vehement resistance in Greater Vancouver – led by some prominent mayors there – to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. Worse, the B.C. government recently came out against the plan as well. This left Energy East as the most promising vehicle to get Alberta oil to fresh markets.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Coderre's announcement has not gone over well in Alberta. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is livid, saying there is already a pipeline that goes to Montreal. Beyond that, he said the alternative to shipping oil by pipeline was to do it by rail, and Quebec should know better than anyone the risks inherent in that – a reference to the Lac-Mégantic disaster of 2013 in which 47 people were killed. He also pointed out the absurdity of Canada continuing to import oil from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – shipments that come by freighter via the St. Lawrence Seaway.
But anger has spread beyond Alberta's borders. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall called Mr. Coderre's proclamation a "sad day for our country." And, like many, he referenced the billions that Quebec will receive in equalization payments this year, payments that over the past decade have largely been supported by the Canadian energy sector and Western Canadian taxpayers.
These developments, needless to say, are horrible news for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. She brought in costly environmental reforms, including a carbon tax, with the promise that it was the price the province had to pay to develop the "social licence" necessary to get pipelines built. Now it seems that all the measures that Ms. Notley's NDP government have introduced have not bought an ounce of goodwill outside the province.
Politics being politics, Ms. Notley's opponents have seized on this. The fact that environmental reform in the province was necessary regardless of the pipeline endgame is lost in all this. And given that the jobs of tens of thousands of Albertans have disappeared in the past year because of the crash in oil prices, it's understandable that people might not see the value in what the NDP is doing at the moment.
But back to Mr. Trudeau. He needs to put his mind to this situation and in a hurry. There is incredible resentment building inside Alberta. It suddenly feels isolated, perhaps even more so now that there isn't a Western conservative occupying the Prime Minister's Office. Offering assistance to help Alberta transition to a less carbon-centric economy is not going to quite cut it as a federal response to the situation.
At the same time, Mr. Trudeau, at least the one who was campaigning last October, said that for pipelines to be built the proponents needed to achieve "public trust" – a stand-in for the ever-ambiguous "social licence." It's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the necessary public trust to build Energy East given the developments of this week.
That is why this is such an intractable problem for the Prime Minister. He has, in some respects, painted himself into a corner, one that will be difficult to get out of. But get out of it he must, or there will be a harsh price to pay.