Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thought he'd struck a middle-ground political balance on pipelines and climate policy, but it looks like the centre is getting harder to hold.
The problem for Canadians is that the centre is the only viable path.
B.C. Premier John Horgan is threatening to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The three main leadership candidates for Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party are promising to dump the party's pledge to adopt a carbon tax. Jason Kenney, Leader of Alberta's United Conservatives, pledges to kill that province's carbon tax if he is elected – and polls suggest he probably will be.
All of that is a mounting challenge to Mr. Trudeau's formula. He had staked out the political middle by promising Canadians they could have both things at once: He'd get resources to market, approving at least one new oil pipeline, but also act on climate change, including putting a price on carbon.
Now, he's getting attacked from both sides – accused of failing to stop B.C.'s threats to block Trans Mountain, and from the other end of the spectrum of buckling under to the oil industry and sacrificing the environment.
Pipeline advocates keep screaming that Ottawa must do more to knock back B.C.'s threat to block Trans Mountain. But since B.C. hasn't done anything yet, nor said what it will do, the only thing Ottawa can do is to declare it will intervene if the province oversteps. And Mr. Trudeau's government has: "The federal government will ultimately not allow any province to impinge on its jurisdiction over the national interest, full stop," Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said last week. The critics kept screaming.
In an era of increasingly divisive politics, where politicians build support by riling an angry base, Mr. Trudeau might find it hard to hold the middle. But he is right that the majority wants both energy development and climate policy. If Ottawa doesn't try to advance both at the same time, both will be stymied, and Canadian policy is doomed to swing unpredictably.
In practice, Mr. Trudeau's opponents don't really have a plan on climate and pipelines – and in Canada, if you don't have both, you don't have a policy. The Conservatives have no substantial proposal to constrain greenhouse gas emissions, so their energy policy is a mess. The NDP's energy policy amounts to keeping oil in the ground. Neither is politically tenable.
Last Wednesday, at a University of Chicago event hosted by former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod, Mr. Trudeau defended his approach to pipelines and carbon pricing as more than a "Goldilocks solution." He put forward a carbon-pricing plan, he said, but the "flip side" was approving a pipeline.
The Liberals can be derided for a lot of squishy Goldilocks positioning between Conservatives and New Democrats over the years, on topics from public spending or national security, and fantasy-land efforts to please all, like declarations they oppose selling arms to countries with poor rights records while doing just that.
But on pipelines and climate change, Mr. Trudeau's Goldilocks policy is the only practical option.
The Canadian public now wants climate policies. Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, under ex-leader Patrick Brown, promised a carbon tax because his advisers thought it was necessary to win over the political middle and take power. The party's leadership candidates are ditching it because they need to win party members who don't like it, but in a general election, not having a climate policy will be a liability – they will have to rely on general distaste for the long-in-the-tooth provincial Liberals.
The federal Conservatives under Andrew Scheer don't really have a climate policy, either. If they win in 2019, they can expect to rekindle even stronger opposition to oil sands development and pipelines – in Canada, around the world, and possibly from the next U.S. president elected in 2020.
Of course, having a climate-change policy doesn't mean it's easy to get a pipeline built. Local opposition over fears of spills make it hard to push a pipeline through almost anywhere, in New Jersey, or North Dakota, or B.C. But climate change now drives the broader opposition.
Yet those who oppose any pipelines or oil-sands development because of its impact on emissions face another political problem – most Canadians won't swallow a policy if they think it means cutting off all new oil-sands development and killing jobs.
Ask federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. He's stuck between Mr. Horgan and another NDP Premier, Alberta's Rachel Notley. He can't settle on a policy even within his own party. So the federal NDP insists it is not against all pipelines, while in practice it is against each one. And since Canadians don't accept a keep-it-in-the-ground policy, it's like having no policy at all.
Mr. Trudeau's climate-and-pipeline policy might be Goldilocks politics, but it's far more realistic than the fairy tales of his opponents.