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Editorials Ottawa approves a pipeline. Now it has to actually build it

As expected, the Trudeau government reapproved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project on Tuesday. Just as predictably, the government is coming under fire from all quarters for doing so.

Conservative Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer says the approval is “meaningless” without a hard start date for construction. Many in Alberta’s struggling oil industry are calling it too little, too late. Indigenous groups and environmentalists are vowing to fight the approval in court on the same grounds that led a Federal Court of Appeal judge to strike down a previous approval last year. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called it “a bet against our future.”

In short, Ottawa is the bad guy in this movie, which in fairness, goes with the job. But there’s also something unfair about it. For all its faults, the Trudeau government has been the country’s only sensible voice on the issue of balancing Indigenous rights and the fight against climate change with the need to support Canada’s resource economy. Tuesday’s announcement is the logical outcome of that policy.

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Since becoming Prime Minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau has sold a grand bargain in which Alberta would be able to develop its fossil-fuel industry while Canada as a whole reduced its greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2016, when his government approved the Trans Mountain expansion, as well as Enbridge’s expansion of part of its main export line to the United States, he effectively increased Alberta’s export capacity by one million barrels a day.

On the other side of the bargain, Mr. Trudeau’s government obliged the provinces to create carbon-pricing regimes, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, or have one imposed by Ottawa. That federal scheme is now in place, or about to be implemented, in five provinces. It is revenue-neutral for individual taxpayers, who get a refund on their income taxes.

Is it the perfect plan? Not exactly. Carbon pricing is a proven way of reducing emissions, but the pricing set by Ottawa won’t be high enough in the long term for Canada to meet its climate goals.

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In the short term, though, the bargain was a recognition that, even in the era of climate change, Canada has to be able to play to its economic strengths. It was never reasonable or sensible to expect Canada to abandon oil production overnight. The impact on the economy would be devastating.

This grand bargain has been attacked on all sides. Environmental groups portray the Trans Mountain expansion, which would triple the pipeline’s capacity, as a betrayal of Mr. Trudeau’s stated desire to make Canada a leader in the fight against climate change.

But that position doesn’t take into account the fact that Alberta oil will still be produced and shipped without the pipeline expansion, only by the far more dangerous method of rail transport. As well, killing the expansion would do nothing to reduce fossil-fuel consumption in Canada. All it would do is irreparably harm the Alberta economy for the sake of a symbolic victory.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Scheer has been pushing for a less stringent approvals process and has also vowed to kill the federal carbon tax if elected this fall. It’s an approach that underestimates the threat of climate change and is seemingly oblivious to Ottawa’s legal obligation to consult Indigenous peoples on projects that run through or near their territories. It’s as if the 2018 court ruling that struck down the previous approval for the pipeline expansion, on the grounds the government failed to properly consult some Indigenous stakeholders, never occurred.

In reapproving the project, the Trudeau government has presumably responded to the limited number of specific failings cited by that ruling. Time will tell, as Indigenous and environmental groups opposed to the pipeline intend to go back to court to find out.

But for the moment, the middle way has won out. The Trans Mountain expansion is in the national interest. It will boost the economy, create jobs, reduce the likelihood of railcar crude spills and, if Mr. Trudeau keeps a promise he made Tuesday, eventually fund the development of clean, renewable energy sources.

The government, which owns the Trans Mountain pipeline after it purchased it last year, now needs to prove it can keep its end of the bargain and get shovels in the ground this summer.

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