There was a telltale moment last week. Protesters shut down a National Energy Board hearing on the Energy East pipeline. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was asked about it. He uttered not a word of admonition.
The moment said a lot about where the Liberals sit on the question of environmental protection versus development. They pride themselves on their green credentials. Climate change is of paramount concern. Mr. Trudeau's spirit is at one with the ecology-minded younger generation. His lead thinker is Gerald Butts, who is formerly the head of the World Wildlife Fund Canada. There is no greater priority for the government than our First Nations, who view development as a threat.
Fair enough. But there is a problem here, it being that on development issues we risk getting government by the heart, not the head.
The country is burdened by a chronic slow-growth economy, which is stoking unemployment and stifling middle-class progress. Alberta is on its knees as a result of occurrences – biblical fires and collapsed energy prices – beyond its control. Our export-driven economy pivots on getting our No. 1 resource, oil and gas, to market. Putting in place appropriate infrastructure to do that is a no-brainer.
Two major pipeline projects, Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, are dead or all but dead. That leaves two others, Energy East and Kinder Morgan. If they don't get done, if much of our most precious resource faces a landlocked future, consequences are predictable.
But instead of pushing hard, instead of making the case for these projects, the government equivocates. It lollygags. It rags the puck. It demands a social licence for the projects and in doing so leaves open the field for the environmentalists to slow or block them.
Mr. Trudeau's environmental conscience may be in tune with the spirit of the times, but the spirit collides with the economy's necessity.
The Prime Minister is not anti-pipeline. He says they are a top priority. He favoured Keystone. On environmental protection versus development, he'll tell you the two aren't mutually exclusive. There's a good deal of truth in that. Pipelines can be built with appropriate safeguards. Planned carbon taxes can limit emissions toll from increased bitumen output.
The country needs jobs and the pipeline projects would bring on thousands of them. Mr. Trudeau has just returned from a trip to China, which will soon become the world's largest importer of oil. Are we to deprive ourselves of a major stake in that market out of fear of oil spills from increased tanker traffic off our West Coast?
It all makes Mr. Trudeau's failure to champion the projects, as Conservatives argue, all the more puzzling.
There are, to be sure, political considerations. Approving the Kinder-Morgan project, which would run from Edmonton to Burnaby, could cost the Liberals support in British Columbia. The Energy East pipeline has stiff opposition in Mr. Trudeau's home province of Quebec. The projects could well weaken support among youth and indigenous peoples.
But doing things that don't play to parishioners is what every government at some point has to do. The Trudeau Liberals are early in their mandate. They are in the high 40s in the polls. That's up from the high 20s a year ago. It's arguably the steepest climb in Liberal history. The Conservatives are about 20 points behind. What better moment to do the tough stuff? They have political capital to burn.
On Kinder Morgan, the federal cabinet is to decide by Christmas. The green light not only should be given to this project, but the Liberals need to make more of an effort to sell stakeholders on the need for Energy East as well.
As former prime minister Brian Mulroney said on the weekend, Mr. Trudeau can't be blamed for 15 years of inaction on pipelines but the east-west line is a nation-building exercise that will help ensure our god-given wealth does not remain in the ground.
On energy infrastructure, it's no time to lead with the heart, it's time the head took over. The reward outweighs the risk.