This was supposed to be the political bargain: a pipeline to tidewater in exchange for a climate-change plan. Both Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley sold that deal to voters.
There were always two problems with it. One was that not everyone who supported the politicians bought both sides of the bargain: Many environmentalists, for example, never accepted the pipeline. The other was that opposition to each pipeline is as much about local objections as greenhouse gas emissions, so Mr. Trudeau must spend political capital to deliver one. And the question is where it will cost the most – in B.C. or Quebec?
But make no mistake, Mr. Trudeau must deliver. Though many don't believe it, Mr. Trudeau's Liberal government has always seen a pipeline as a political imperative. And the pipeline-for-climate-action deal really is the political bargain now.
Both Mr. Trudeau and especially Ms. Notley campaigned arguing that pipelines had been blocked because of Canada's dirty reputation for environmental inaction, and that could be cleaned up. But Mr. Trudeau also declared it a prime minister's duty to get Canadian resources – oil – to market.
Ms. Notley has recently made the other side of the calculation explicit, too: She warned federal New Democrats that if a pipeline is blocked, the Alberta NDP will lose to conservatives who would oppose her climate-change plan.
In other words, pipelines can only win political support if there are plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to reduce emissions can only get support if there's a pipeline.
That's rhetoric. But the rhetoric is probably becoming reality. It is hard to imagine Ms. Notley winning re-election if she regulates emissions but doesn't get a pipeline. It's harder to imagine her opponents, or successors, sticking with anything like her climate program if that promised reward, a pipeline, is rejected.
In Alberta, the notion that a pipeline to tidewater is desperately needed is now deeply ingrained. It's not just about capacity to transport bitumen – it's perceived as a matter of fairness, and seen as a way to break out of the U.S. market, where Alberta oil is bought at a discount by a buyer who controls the price.
So Alberta's buy-in for greenhouse gas reductions seems to depend on pipeline plans. And Mr. Trudeau's hopes for a national climate plan – and his promise that the oil business and climate action can fit together – depend on Ms. Notley's.
For many environmentalists, any pipeline means more emissions. But Pembina Institute executive director Ed Whittingham argues that Ms. Notley's plan was a big step, and provides certainty by setting a cap on Alberta's emissions. Pipeline or not, the cap will be the same. "Look at what would happen in the absence of that limit," Mr. Whittingham said.
That won't convince everyone, but most Canadians would probably accept it: Mr. Trudeau could justify the idea that one pipeline won't cripple the climate. The question is where.
The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., has been approved, but with 209 conditions – and Mr. Trudeau has opposed its route and promised a tanker ban off northern B.C. There's been recent talk about a change of route, but it would take a spectacular flip-flop for Mr. Trudeau to allow it.
The twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline to Burnaby, B.C., is up for approval next, and it has the advantage of following a route that's mostly in use already. But it faces intense opposition from Vancouver-area residents who fear a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic – including from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a Trudeau government ally. Approving it probably means offending a lot of Liberal voters.
And then there's Energy East, with a route that would run to Saint John, and notably across Quebec, where 82 mayors have objected. Polls suggest it's unpopular. But the objections aren't as intensely focused as among those Vancouverites who don't want more tankers; they are a mix of local concerns about leaks, and general concerns about climate. Some Liberals think they can be assuaged with concessions from the promoter and a public campaign. But the party now has 40 seats in Quebec, and it's a risk.
But Mr. Trudeau can't afford to make it a question about whether he'll approve a pipeline. That's a political bargain he's already made, and the question is where he pays the price.