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Canada’s politicians need consistency in the national pipeline debate

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre can be forgiven if he felt blindsided by the near-universal condemnation his rejection of the Energy East pipeline project incited.

Albert Premier Rachel Notley. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose. The reigning Best Mayor on the Planet, Naheed Nenshi of Calgary. Each took a turn blasting Mr. Coderre for being "short-sighted" and "hypocritical," among other nasty things. Even CBC comedian Rick Mercer jumped into the fray, criticizing Mr. Coderre for taking a what's-in-it-for-me stance when it was the greater good of the country he needed to be considering.

Silent in the fractious debate that has some talking about a nascent national unity crisis have been politicians from British Columbia. It's not difficult to understand why.

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The fact is, many of the arguments that Mr. Coderre mounted in his objection to Energy East only mimicked those that have been offered by politicians (and First Nations) in B.C. in their opposition to both the Northern Gateway pipeline project and the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion. I understand that the two endeavours are not identical to Energy East, but in the end they all come down to the same thing: Is the environmental risk inherent in the projects worth the economic benefits?

Crude oil is transferred safely in pipelines around the world. Crude oil is safely transported by freighter around the world too. Do accidents happen? Of course.

My point is, Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson doesn't support Kinder Morgan because of the threat the increased number of freighters loading up oil in the city's harbour poses to pristine shorelines. And it is entirely within his right to take that position, even if the statistical evidence shows the potential peril is extremely small.

How is that any different than Mr. Coderre saying the Energy East pipeline poses risks to the drinking-water supply of a metropolitan region of nearly four million people? Why is he censured so roundly for his comments and the mayor of Vancouver gets a free pass when it comes to Kinder Morgan? Why isn't Mr. Nenshi denouncing his buddy mayor in Vancouver or the Premier of British Columbia, for that matter?

Mr. Coderre was cited for being hypocritical in his opposition to Energy East on environmental grounds because he also allows raw sewage to be dumped into the St. Lawrence River. Also, there were some who felt the mayor's reference to the lack of any economic benefit to Montreal in the Energy East plan was crass.

Again, I'm mystified. Premier Christy Clark has made "economic benefits" one of the five conditions she's established to get pipelines approved in B.C.; the province demands a cut of the action in exchange for the environmental risk it is accepting. I don't recall people across the country rising up in arms over this demand. In fact, many thought it was perfectly acceptable. I didn't hear people (outside Alberta) suggesting Ms. Clark was trying to create regional divides. I didn't hear many people upset when B.C. recently registered its official opposition to Kinder Morgan. Not a peep, anywhere.

I also didn't hear anyone calling the Premier out for her own hypocrisy when it comes to the environment. After all, in Victoria, city officials have authorized the dumping of raw sewage into the ocean for decades, much to the chagrin of our American neighbours to the south who want the practice stopped. And who can blame them? And yet on it goes.

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That's why this pipeline debate is so fractious and such an intractable public-policy issue. Quebec may, in the end, be talked into lending its support to Energy East; on Tuesday, after meeting with Justin Trudeau, Mr. Coderre took a softer line on the project, calling for a "balanced approach." But I guarantee you, the province will not meekly submit to this pipeline without first asking why projects to the West Coast aren't similarly being approved. The Prime Minister all but killed Northern Gateway by campaigning on a pledge to ban tanker traffic down the coast of B.C.

I'm not sure how he could nudge Quebec, and Mr. Coderre, into accepting Energy East while not insisting on a similar fate for the Kinder Morgan expansion, even if it comes at the expense of his BFF Mr. Robertson.

There needs to be a coherent strategy for the approval of pipelines in this country. That includes the need for an environmental review process that can be trusted. The federal government is supposed to have authority over pipeline development, but it has not played out that way. Politics, more than reason, seem to dictate energy infrastructure development.

As long as that continues to be the case, there will be a risk to unity. And in grappling with this issue, Mr. Trudeau must acknowledge this undeniable reality.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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