After the initial shock of the Federal Court of Appeal’s judgment on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, life is returning to normal for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. That is, the new normal that exists in the long, cold shadow of the court’s verdict, with the many ramifications for her government that flow from it.
For Ms. Notley, there isn’t much she can do now but wait for Ottawa to come up with its response to the ruling. But the clock is ticking. If Justin Trudeau weren’t aware of that before, he certainly is now after his recent meeting with the Premier in which it was made abundantly clear how crucial it is for a plan to be enunciated swiftly. With a provincial election slated for next May, there is an important political timeline at play.
Among other things, the court’s finding stopped Ms. Notley’s pre-election campaign strategy cold in its tracks. Out the door went the many photo-ops being envisaged over the coming months of the Premier at construction sites where the pipeline expansion was under way. Now, her hardhat will be sitting in her office collecting dust. Worse, she’ll likely now have to endure months more of her main political rival, Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, hammering her publicly for believing Mr. Trudeau would come through with a pipeline in exchange for a carbon tax.
Mr. Kenney is campaigning almost as hard against Mr. Trudeau – a person he seemingly despises – on behalf of his old pals in the federal Conservative party. He would love to see the federal Liberals wiped out in Alberta (and elsewhere) come the next general election, and is working overtime to make it possible.
Mr. Trudeau knows this, which is why he is determined to see this pipeline expansion happen.
There is almost as much riding on this for him as there is for Ms. Notley. He has vowed repeatedly the project will get completed. He used up vast amounts of political capital purchasing the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and other assets from Kinder Morgan, including plans and existing infrastructure related to the proposed expansion. The credibility of his government is at stake. That is why he is going to do everything in his power to ensure the federal obligations outlined in the appeal court’s decision are met.
Ottawa won’t likely take any kind of drastic legislative action that attempts to override the court’s authority in this case. After initially being caught flat-footed (and shell-shocked) by the verdict, the PMO now believes it will likely take months – not years – to address the shortcomings charted by the court in the government’s approval process for the project. For starters, a lot of work on the impacts of increased tanker traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca has already been done and is reflected in the government’s $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan – a document the appeals court did not review before issuing its decision.
But the National Energy Board will likely hold hearings on the effects tanker traffic could have on the southern resident killer whale population. It would be a single-issue hearing that would not have to drag on for months; more likely weeks. According to federal and provincial sources, there are discussions under way around having a “super team” of people inside government charged with consulting with the six First Nations the court said got short-shrift during the approval process. This group would be led by a person of some standing, who would have credibility with Indigenous groups. It could be someone outside of government. There is also talk of having a team of advisers with constitutional expertise to guide the government on the process, letting it know if the matters set out by the court are being satisfied.
If there is one concern it would be this: The interests of the federal government and the government of Alberta appear to be diverging.
Where Ms. Notley wants shovels in the ground by January, Mr. Trudeau wants to ensure he’s not rushing, and ultimately undermining, his government’s response to the court’s decision in the name of meeting someone’s political agenda. And this is likely going to frustrate the Alberta government to no end.
In other words, when work on the new pipeline resumes, it could well be Premier Jason Kenney in his hardhat at construction sites posing for pictures, not Ms. Notley. And the irony of that is almost too rich to imagine.