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Opinion Trans Mountain impasse threatens climate action (and a bromance)

Of all the noisy reaction to Justin Trudeau's refreshingly frank interview with the National Observer on the state of pipeline politics in Canada, most perplexing was the anger expressed by environmentalists that the approval of Trans Mountain involved a quid pro quo.

If Alberta pulled up its environmental socks, and drastically so, it would get its pipeline to tidewater.

"It was always a question of, if we could move forward responsibly on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, then Alberta would be able to be as ambitious as we needed Alberta to be and get on with the national climate-change plan. … Yes, they were linked to each other," the Prime Minister told the online publication.

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Read more: A trade war threatens the ties that bind Alberta and B.C.

If ever there was an arrangement that was self-evident, that was it. Mr. Trudeau had telegraphed just such a deal as far back as 2013, when, in a speech to the Petroleum Club in Calgary, he indicated that improved environmental measures were inextricably tied to any new pipelines in Canada.

Innovation, he said, was needed to make resource extraction more sustainable.

"This is no longer simply an environmental issue," he said then. "This is quickly becoming an issue of market access. If we don't convince the world that we have our act together, as a country, on the environment, we will find it harder and harder to get our resources to world markets."

And there was only one province trying to get its oil offshore.

More noteworthy in the interview, I think, were the pointed words Mr. Trudeau reserved for John Horgan over the lengths to which the B.C. Premier is going to thwart the pipeline.

Those efforts, of course, have touched off a nasty trade war with Alberta and all signs suggest it will get even nastier before it's over.

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The Prime Minister said that, by trying to block Trans Mountain, Mr. Horgan was putting the entire national climate plan at risk. Why? Well, because of the quid pro quo referenced earlier. Without a pipeline, there is a very real chance Alberta will retreat from its environmental commitments, which would deliver a serious blow to the country's efforts to reach the CO2 emissions targets agreed to in Paris in 2016.

The Prime Minister is right, of course. You can't have politicians picking and choosing what parts of a national climate strategy they like; what parts they will go along with and what parts they will fight.

Something that big and complicated always involves compromises. To get what you want on the one hand, often means you have to give up something on the other.

So much for the budding bromance with the Prime Minister that Mr. Horgan had boasted about earlier. Now, there is a definite chill in the air and you have to wonder what impact, if any, this will have on commitments Ottawa has made to B.C. in the way of infrastructure spending and support for future LNG projects.

Meantime, the National Energy Board (NEB) on Thursday issued a statement that Kinder Morgan could commence construction of the pipeline's tunnel entrance at Burnaby Mountain, as long as it receives proper permitting from all three levels of government.

This is where things could get interesting on a couple of levels.

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Will the City of Burnaby, which vehemently opposes the project, attempt to drag out the permitting process – something the municipality has already been accused of doing?

On Friday, the city appealed an NEB decision that exempted Kinder Morgan from local bylaws, suggesting the city will continue pushing against the project.

And will the province join in, ensuring the tunnel work doesn't start any time soon?

This will only infuriate an increasingly frustrated Prime Minister even more.

Construction will also be a signal for activists who have been waiting in the wings for the project to get under way in earnest. They have promised the fight of their lives to ensure Trans Mountain doesn't go ahead. Federal politicians such as the NDP's Kennedy Stewart are already predicting violence.

We could be on the brink of a dramatic showdown.

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The animus building up around all sides of this dispute make it a fascinating story to watch. It has the possibility of jeopardizing long-standing friendships, among people and governments.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she’s talking to her Alberta and B.C. counterparts to help resolve an emerging trade war over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. McKenna says the project is definitely going ahead. The Canadian Press
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