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Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shake hands during a meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shake hands during a meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

GARY MASON

Trans Mountain pipeline approval was crucial to Notley’s political survival Add to ...

In making the most contentious decision in the short life of his government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Alberta Premier Rachel Notley the biggest victory in the brief life of hers.

The federal government’s approval of Kinder Morgan Inc.’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is news that will be felt across this country – but nowhere more than in Alberta, a province economically ravaged by the downturn in the price of oil. The political ripple the announcement creates is difficult to overstate.

The project gives Ms. Notley’s centre-left New Democratic Party something successive Progressive Conservative administrations in Alberta couldn’t accomplish over the decade a Conservative government was in control in Ottawa.

Read more: Ottawa’s pipeline approvals give Alberta boost, but upset environmentalists

Campbell Clark: Trudeau didn’t just approve Trans Mountain, he put his weight behind it

Subscribers: Canadians about to see yet again that approvals don’t end pipeline battles

No wonder Ms. Notley was so jubilant over the news: Her long-term political survival depended on it. For her opponents, it is the most bitter of pills to swallow.

Ms. Notley had to risk some dicey moves of her own to lay the groundwork for this outcome.

She introduced a wide-ranging climate-change plan, which opened her up to damaging attacks that scored with the public: Why was she phasing out coal-fired generating plants, imposing a carbon tax, capping oil sands emissions at a time when the province – and many people in it – was so financially desperate?

The answer: It was the only way a federal Liberal party that campaigned its way into power on a promise to be environmentally enlightened was going to be able to justify a pipeline. In the process, it makes Mr. Trudeau look like he is rewarding a jurisdiction that introduced bold (see unpopular) reformist environmental measures in the name of the greater good.

The ramifications that the Kinder Morgan decision imposes on the broader Alberta political scene were likely not lost on the Prime Minister. Former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney is trying to unite the right in Alberta, running primarily on the premise that Ms. Notley’s policies are destroying the province. He has pledged to reverse some of her environmental edicts – the same ones that Mr. Trudeau highlighted as being vital to his decision. The Prime Minister did not want to give Mr. Kenney any ammunition in his fight against a progressive government in Alberta by rejecting all pipelines.

It will be fascinating to see how Mr. Kenney dances around this issue now. It’s hard to imagine him ever ascending to power and then reneging on the very promises this pipeline authorization was based on – unless he didn’t care how the rest of the country regarded his province. But that is a ways off.

The pipeline announcement has damaging political consequences for the Prime Minister.

There is rampant opposition to the project in British Columbia, specifically in Metro Vancouver. Well-financed environmental organizations have vowed to mount the fight of their lives against it, conjuring images of the protests at Standing Rock in the United States, which have turned violent. (Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has already said she is willing to go to jail over Kinder Morgan. Less clear is what good she thinks she can do behind bars).

Indigenous groups are calling the approval a gross betrayal of the Prime Minister’s promised new accord with First Nations. Even a member of Mr. Trudeau’s own Liberal caucus, Terry Beech, MP for a riding in suburban Burnaby, the epicentre of anti-pipeline sentiment, is on the record as opposing the pipeline.

The B.C. government, meantime, issued a vague statement about the five conditions it earlier laid out for pipeline approvals. That set of stipulations wasn’t even mentioned by the Prime Minister – which tells you everything you need to know about how seriously he takes them. This pipeline will go ahead, especially since Ottawa recently gave Premier Christy Clark the federal approval she so desperately wanted on a huge LNG project proposed for her province.

People will be analyzing Mr. Trudeau’s decision for months, if not years. Court challenges are certain to be mounted. It could be some time (if ever) before a single drop of oil is loaded onto a tanker from this pipeline.

For the Prime Minister, meantime, the difficult process of governing this complex nation has begun in earnest. Kinder Morgan is a gutsy call. The scars of battle on his youthful visage will soon be evident.

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