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Globe editorial: On pipelines, Ottawa must have the final say

There's a battle brewing between British Columbia and the federal government that could have an indelible impact on the future of Canada. It comes down to one question: Can Ottawa effectively exercise its responsibilities if the provinces refuse to recognize its authority on controversial issues?

The issue at hand is pipelines. Last fall, the Trudeau government approved Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion project, which will twin an existing pipeline along a route from Alberta to Burnaby, in Metro Vancouver. The decision came after a full review of the project by the National Energy Board.

In other words, Ottawa played by the rules and approved a project of the type that the Constitution places squarely in its jurisdiction: railways, canals, hydro lines, pipelines and other infrastrcture that cross provincial boundaries.

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Ottawa also has clear jurisdiction over seacoasts, navigation and shipping, which ties into issues that arise from the fact that the pipeline expansion will increase tanker traffic in Vancouver harbour and along the coast of B.C.

And Ottawa has sole jurisdiction over trade and commerce, which is what this is mostly about. Getting the crude from Alberta's oil sands – or any other Canadian product from any other landlocked part of the country – to coastal waters where it can be loaded onto boats and shipped to foreign markets goes to the heart of Canada's ability to be a successful trader.

On top of all that, there is a clause in the Constitution that gives Ottawa jurisdiction over projects that are "declared by the Parliament of Canada to be for the general Advantage of Canada."

So it's clear. Ottawa has authority over the Trans Mountain expansion project. That pipeline is critical to Canada's resource-based economy. And it appears to have the support of Canadians and British Columbians, who in polls last fall consistently backed Ottawa's decision to greenlight the project.

And yet it's not clear at all. British Columbia is poised to be governed by the New Democrats with the support of the Green Party; the two party leaders have promised to use "every tool" available to prevent the Trans Mountain expansion.

Those tools are considerable. If the NDP and Greens form government, they will be able to undertake a bureaucratic guerrilla war against the project.

The B.C. provincial government could collude with municipal governments to deny needed construction permits, which would cause delays and raise costs for Kinder Morgan.

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They can also rescind the previous Liberal government's approval of the project and set new conditions on it. And they could side with the plaintiffs in the many court challenges, 19 and counting, brought by environmental groups, municipalities and First Nations, that claim that the federal approval process was flawed.

The NDP-Greens are also armed with political clout. They are positioning themselves as the "defenders" of B.C.'s coastal waters. And, by trying to block the export of crude oil, they claim to be on the side of the angels in the fight against climate change.

That's a tough combo for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to punch against. He has promised that the coastline will be protected by strict rules that minimize the chances of a tanker going aground, but the possiblity of a spill can never be reduced to zero.

And while there is a solid three-fold argument for building the pipeline – Canada has to continue to exist as a resource-based economy while it and the rest of the world transition away from carbon; oil sands crude will continue to be shipped even without a pipe, by rail; and pipelines are safer than rail – there is no question that the product it transports will ultimately contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

There are a lot of green votes at stake for the Trudeau government in the Vancouver area. The NDP and Green members know it, and they will use it to their advantage. In the end, they could kill the project by forcing delay after delay, while Ottawa, paralyzed by a fear of alienating voters, stands by.

That must not happen. Mr. Trudeau should stick to his guns and see the project through. There is a principle at play. Simply put, one provincial government should not have a veto over Canadian trade because of its geography. This has to be a national decision – and that means the federal government and federal institutions.

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As Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said last week, "We can't be a country that says one of its two functional coastlines is only going to do what the people who live right beside it want to do."

We would go further than that. Provincial parties should not espouse the use of clever delay tactics for the sole purpose of usurping the duly exercised authority of the federal government. Trans Mountain has the law and Parliament behind it. That may not please its opponents, but their displeasure doesn't give them the power to undermine a valid federal decision.

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