Is Justin Trudeau willing to campaign for a pipeline, taking on some of his own voters, political allies and even some of his own Liberal MPs?
The Prime Minister has less than a month to decide whether to approve the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.
His government has laid the political groundwork for approval, talking about how Canada must both get resources to market and address climate change. On the climate side, an agreement with premiers on reducing emissions is being hammered out for December. Two weeks ago, Mr. Trudeau announced a $1.5-billion marine-safety plan that includes new measures for oil-spill cleanup, a key step to win British Columbia's endorsement for the Trans Mountain proposal. Last week, Natural Resources Minister James Carr talked about the importance of getting a pipeline route for oil exports to Asia.
But whether Mr. Trudeau will risk putting his political weight behind a campaign to sell the pipeline to voters is still a key question. That does not just mean approving it, but trying to win over public opinion in B.C. When push comes to shove, that will probably be crucial to determining whether Trans Mountain ever gets built – and there will be a lot of shoving, starting soon.
On Saturday, thousands protested against the pipeline in Vancouver. Trudeau allies such as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson are opposed. And two Liberal MPs are publicly campaigning against it.
Burnaby North-Seymour MP Terry Beech, whose riding includes the tanker terminal, is an all-in opponent. Using a twist on Mr. Trudeau's election-campaign statement that "governments might grant permits, but only communities can grant permission," Mr. Beech told a ministerial panel in September that "the community does not grant its permission for this project to proceed."
Mr. Trudeau might wave that off as one local politician. But last week, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam MP Ron McKinnon called for the government to reject the pipeline expansion as "detrimental" to B.C. Both MPs seem caught between their government and their constituents. It seems likely other MPs feel similar pressure. Is Mr. Trudeau game for this fight?
Of course, Mr. Trudeau could still reject Trans Mountain. But that would leave Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, a key Trudeau ally in forging a climate-change plan, in trouble. Politically, she needs a pipeline, and counting on U.S. president-elect Donald Trump to give quick approval to an alternative, Keystone XL, is risky.
There is another way Mr. Trudeau might try to avoid political danger: He could approve the pipeline, with conditions, but steer clear of personally campaigning for it. That could be the worst of both worlds.
That is what Stephen Harper did. He approved the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal with more than 200 conditions, then distanced himself, leaving the fate of the project to pipeline promoter Enbridge. Gateway essentially collapsed under public opposition and a court ruling that Ottawa had not discharged its legal duty to consult First Nations.
But Mr. Trudeau claims to be different. He promised a pipeline and a climate plan go together. If he decides Trans-Mountain is in the national interest, it is his job to explain why.
The alternative is politically dangerous, too. Unless Mr. Trudeau is campaigning for it, the pipeline would not find as many political allies.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has sat on the fence, demanding five conditions be met, including spill cleanup plans and economic benefits for B.C. But this is politics: She is much more likely to endorse the pipeline, and say her conditions are met, if the PM is campaigning for it. Ms. Clark, after all, faces an election in May.
Liberal MPs in B.C. do not want to have to defend it on their own, either. And if support unravels, if the government is forced to backtrack, if it appears his Liberals cannot get a pipeline built, then a notion that defines Mr. Trudeau – the promise that climate policies and a resource economy go together – will be in tatters.
So far, Mr. Trudeau's government has given every hint it is moving ahead with Trans Mountain. But Mr. Trudeau has never had to make this kind of decision on wading into a wrenching campaign against parts of his own base, and we do not yet know if he will put his skin in the game.