Skip to main content

Andrew Weaver, the most powerful Green Party politician in Canada, is a smart man. This week he tweeted out a prediction that strikes me as dead on. Despite the posturing of Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley, he said, "it is virtually certain" that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will never be built.

Why won't it happen? Because despite the approval of the National Energy Board 15 months ago, opposition to the pipeline has only grown. That opposition comes not just from environmentalists and First Nations, but also from the new provincial government in British Columbia. Most of B.C.'s Lower Mainland population oppose it fiercely. Many people are willing to break the law to block it.

In other words, Justin Trudeau's calculation has blown up in his face. He thought he could square the climate circle by persuading Canadians to build a pipeline now in exchange for cutting emissions later. The two, he assures us, are inextricably linked. Just trust him, and everyone will be a winner!

But Mr. Weaver, who is leader of the B.C. Green Party, doesn't buy it. B.C. climate expert Mark Jaccard doesn't either. Reduce emissions by increasing them? "George Orwell would have fun unpacking this black-is-white logic," he mocks.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone could have squared this circle. The Prime Minister's fundamental mistake was thinking that he could get to yes through logic, consensus-building, and grand bargains that would secure broad public approval, what he calls a "social licence." Maybe that would have been possible five years ago. It's not possible today. Too much of the opposition to pipelines is religious and existential. Too many opponents believe that any pipeline built through their land, or any diluted bitumen transported through their waters, is a violation of their rights – and, beyond that, a violation of the sacred by the filth of the profane. Too many people believe that the only good pipelines are no pipelines at all, and they're ready to throw themselves in front of bulldozers to stop them. What's Mr. Trudeau supposed to do then? Call in the army?

Meanwhile, a thousand obstacles must be surmounted before it comes to that. A lot of people are hoping that Kinder Morgan, the pipeline's builder, will just give up and go away. The newly elected B.C government is appealing certain jurisdictional issues on constitutional grounds. It has ordered a brand-new study to determine the impact of a spill of diluted bitumen into coastal waters. (You can be sure there will be no consensus on the answers.) Many First Nations are complaining they weren't adequately consulted, and that the pipeline will violate their territorial sovereignty. Now Mr. Trudeau's government has muddied its own waters by declaring that the NEB will be replaced by a body with expanded powers and more legitimacy – causing many people to ask how legitimate the NEB's approval was in the first place. Most significant of all, Mr. Trudeau has vowed to remake Indigenous policy so that he can define a new relationship with First Nations people. What that means for Trans Mountain is an open question.

These are not minor details. They are major hurdles, and few have cut-and-dried answers. What's an acceptable risk for the odds of a dilbit spill in the Salish Sea? Once every 75 years? Once every 2,000? Never? Who determines the odds, and how credible are they? What about First Nations that don't oppose the pipeline but want more of the action? As Harold Aljam, economic development co-ordinator for the Coldwater Band, said to the ministerial panel that examined the Trans Mountain expansion, "I'd like to tax the crap out of it. Canada is at the table. The province is at the table. Well, they have to move over so the Shuswap can sit at that table."

Then there are those for whom no money is enough. "I sit up nights wondering what a spill into the Coquihalla River might look like," Cheam chief Ernie Crey told the panel. "Even a small spill into the Coquihalla would devastate salmon in the Fraser River and plunge First Nations into utter destitution. Global trade, investment, jobs: I know those are important, but consider what could be lost." No facts and safety studies can answer an objection like that.

You may believe, as I do, that it's ridiculous to leave hundreds of billions of dollars on the table because we can't get our oil to tidewater. You may believe that modern oil transport methods are extremely safe, and that we are beggaring ourselves for nothing. Thanks to explosive increases in production, the United States is becoming the world's biggest oil producer while we fight among ourselves. You may believe that although Mr. Trudeau doesn't know the way to Paris, Mr. Weaver and Mr. Jaccard don't either. If pressed, even they would have to admit that whatever Canada does or doesn't do makes hardly any difference in the global scheme of things.

The truth is that in the global scheme of things, one pipeline more or less is entirely symbolic. But symbols have enormous power. And those who care the most about them are more likely to come out on the winning side.