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Trudeau didn’t just approve Trans Mountain, he put his weight behind it

This is the decision that upsets the image of Justin Trudeau as an all-things-to-all-voters people-pleaser. On Tuesday, he risked his own popularity, and several of his party's seats, by approving Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. And he came out to announce it, in person, and on camera.

By now, the Trans Mountain decision seemed almost unavoidable, because Mr. Trudeau had promised he would find a way to get Canadian oil off the continent, and effectively made it the centre of an ambitious political bargain – a pipeline matched with a climate-change plan. But it still took nerve. Approving Trans Mountain means more oil tankers in Vancouver Harbour, upsetting many of the voters who elected Liberals in 15 Lower Mainland ridings. Two Liberal MPs publicly opposed it.

Mr. Trudeau can expect vociferous protests, accusations that he sold out his promises of environmental stewardship. Even before the announcement, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was calling it a "betrayal." Yet Mr. Trudeau put his face on the announcement.

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Opinion: Canadians about to see yet again that approvals don't end pipeline battles

Related: Ottawa's pipeline approvals give Alberta boost, but upset environmentalists

Opinion: Trans Mountain pipeline approval was crucial to Notley's political survival

The simple fact that the Prime Minister announced the decision – not, say, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr – was a signal. In politics, standing up at a news conference to deliver a decision amounts to owning it: Prime ministers go out to get attention; ministers are sent out to deflect it. Mr. Trudeau didn't just approve this controversial pipeline, he put his weight behind it.

That marks a turning point in his prime ministership. Until now, it was easy to doubt whether Mr. Trudeau had the steel to make decisions that offend, despite occasional hints of toughness – like his sudden move, when he was an opposition leader, to boot senators out of his caucus. But this was another level: He moved to advance his agenda with a measure he knows will anger many who supported him. He risked his own popularity, and Liberal seats.

What can Mr. Trudeau hope to get in return?

Part One was on view when this Liberal PM met Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley, just after announcing the approval of an oil pipeline to the ocean. Getting an export route to Asia has been an obsession in the oil patch, where producers say their landlocked oil is subject to discounts in the U.S. market. Now – surprise – it is Mr. Trudeau's federal Liberals and Ms. Notley's Alberta NDP, two governments that promise action on climate change, that are moving that ahead.

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Part Two will be tied up in a bow in the climate-change deal he's expecting to seal with premiers at a first ministers meeting Dec. 9. It now seems likely that nine provinces will sign on to a climate deal that includes carbon pricing; even Saskatchewan's Brad Wall has agreed to a deal on phasing out coal power. Mr. Trudeau will claim progress on both a pipeline and emissions.

Of course, neither is done. Approving a pipeline doesn't mean it will be built. Trans Mountain will face protests, political opposition and legal challenges. The climate-change deal will suffer from questions about whether it will reduce emissions enough to meet national targets. Building new pipelines suggests increased oil production, and that raises serious questions about whether Alberta can meet its plan to cap oil-sands emissions.

But Mr. Trudeau can still claim to have accomplished something unprecedented on both sides.

In true Liberal fashion, he combined the Trans Mountain announcement with others – notably, the decision to finally kill the long-doomed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat B.C. – to claim a balanced approach. But it's Trans Mountain that will be a flashpoint.

The Conservatives will be dismayed. They can no longer attack Mr. Trudeau for rejecting pipelines. New Democrats will accuse him of betraying the environment and B.C., but Liberals will point to Ms. Notley's Alberta NDP. The Liberals calculate this is a national win. But it's a high-stakes gamble, and Mr. Trudeau sacrificed some of his own.

One Liberal, Burnaby-North Seymour MP Terry Beech, was so linked to the campaign against the pipeline that his political career may now be in tatters. For the past year, the Liberal Party has been selling Justin Trudeau T-shirts, but now B.C. protesters will probably burn his effigy. Mr. Trudeau knew that, and decided to own it anyway.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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