The thing about being the government is that even problems you didn't cause are your responsibility. That's how the game works.
It's why the Trudeau government, which would rather leave it to someone else to referee the fight over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, is eventually going to have to get more deeply involved. It is going to have to visibly take a side, make a decision, and make that decision stick. Because when you're the federal government and the issue is an interprovincial pipeline, you're where the buck stops.
Back when they were in opposition, the Liberals correctly criticized the Harper government for turning the pipeline-approval process into a bit of a farce, by acting as a cheerleader and rhetorical backer for individual pipelines, rather than an impartial regulator of private businesses – which is, after all, what those who explore for, produce and move Canada's oil are. Surely government should be able to put in place a review process capable of fairly assessing a pipeline, giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down in a reasonable period of time, and ensuring that decision is final and respected.
When the federal cabinet in 2016 gave the conditional green light to Kinder Morgan's plan to triple the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain line, and then the National Energy Board this year said those conditions had been met, that was supposed to have settled the issue. Instead, the project appears to be heading into a prolonged overtime of lawsuits, bureaucratic blockades at the outlet in Burnaby, and opposition from the new government of British Columbia. The battle is pitting Alberta against B.C., and two New Democratic governments against one another. Each wants Ottawa to strongly take a side.
For obvious political reasons, that's the last thing the Trudeau government wants to have to do. It could unspool its electoral coalition, no matter which way it turns.
On pipelines, the Trudeau government has up to now been remarkably lucky. It has been largely saved from the need to choose among key parts of its voting base by a combination of low oil prices, which reduced the need for new pipelines, and the solicitousness of Donald Trump, who opened a spigot for the export of Canadian oil. But with Trans Mountain, the last major new pipeline project still in the queue, events are unfolding in such a way as to place Ottawa in a position where it is going to have to act, and thereby disappoint one group of supporters or another.
When the Liberals came to power two years ago, Western Canada's oil production was expected to spend the next decade rising sharply. All of that new oil would have to be moved to market, hence all the new pipelines on the drawing board. But at the same time as pressure for new pipelines was building, so was opposition to their construction – so much so that the then-president of the United States, Barack Obama, blocked Keystone XL, one of the biggest and best planned vehicles for exporting Canadian oil.
That meant that, two years ago, it looked like Ottawa was going to have to approve several all-Canadian pipelines, to the Pacific and the Atlantic. The fight over their approval threatened interprovincial wars, a national-unity crisis and political casualties.
Two years later, the landscape is nothing like that. With oil prices stubbornly low, several planned oil-sands projects have been shelved. Estimates of future oil production from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers still shows growth to about 1.3 million barrels per day by 2030, but that's way below estimates of a few years earlier. And when Mr. Trump gave his okay to the 830,000-barrel-a-day Keystone XL, a project requiring no new construction in Canada outside of pro-pipe Alberta and Saskatchewan, he instantly addressed much of this country's remaining oil-transport deficit.
That also inadvertently solved several giant problems for the Trudeau government. It made the Liberals' earlier decision to block Northern Gateway look farsighted, and turned the Energy East plan, always a second-best compared to Keystone, into an expensive redundancy its backers could cancel – saving the Trudeau government from having to choose between Quebec, where opposition was intense, and New Brunswick, whose government lobbied hard for the project.
But absent another sustained drop in the oil price, or a prolonged global recession, Keystone XL alone can't suck up all of the new Canadian oil coming on-stream. That's why Kinder Morgan proposed Trans Mountain's expansion, and that's why the Liberals approved it.
It is, note well, an up-sizing of an existing pipeline that's been quietly carrying oil to Burnaby, in suburban Vancouver, since Louis St. Laurent was prime minister. Of all the pipe projects once under consideration, it involves the least change to the status quo, which is why it was the easiest to approve – and why the Liberals, with as little fanfare as possible, last year gave it the nod, while blocking the Northern Gateway route through northern B.C.
But having given the go-ahead to Trans Mountain, the feds now have to make that decision stick. Making pipeline rejections stick has proved to be no problem. Doing the same for approvals has been anything but.
So far, the Trudeau government is trying to give the appearance of standing on the sidelines. When Kinder Morgan said the city of Burnaby was dragging its feet on issuing construction permits for expansion of its facilities, and called on the NEB to impose its will on the municipality and province, the governments of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan all said they would intervene in the case – the latter two in support of Kinder Morgan. The federal government, in contrast, is staying out of it, and leaving it to the NEB to rule.
The Liberals can argue that they're just trying to depoliticize the process, and make the NEB look like less of a rubber stamp for industry and government. Yes, the NEB should be impartial. Yes, a biased review process is a denial of justice. But so too is a review process that never reaches a verdict, or never comes to an end.