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Trudeau will pay a high price for Trans Mountain’s approval

Thomas Gunton is director of the Resource and Environmental Planning Program at SFU and is a former deputy minister of environment during the B.C. war in the woods.

The Trudeau government got elected on a promise to improve decision-making on oil pipelines. It has now approved the Enbridge Line 3 expansion, Trans Mountain and rejected Enbridge's Northern Gateway.

Two of the decisions are not surprising. Northern Gateway is controversial, was unable to get contractual commitments from producers and never would have been built. Enbridge Line 3 is less controversial because it replaces an older pipeline with a safer new pipeline while providing new capacity.

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Related: Critics speak out against approval of Trans Mountain pipeline in B.C.

Gary Mason: Trans Mountain pipeline approval was crucial to Notley's political survival

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

The decision on the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline to export Alberta oil by tanker from Vancouver is, on the other hand, both surprising and problematic. Trans Mountain clearly faces enormous opposition and lacks the essential "social license" necessary for approval.

Given the opposition to Trans Mountain, the approval will ignite a conflict that will engulf the Trudeau government for years to come and leave everyone including industry worse off.

To understand the consequences, the government only need look at the recent pipeline protests in the United States and Canada and reread the history of the land use wars and Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia that led to blockades, mass arrests, and international boycotts that sullied Canada's international reputation.

The government justifies its decision by stating that it relied on the evidence. The problem with this rationale is that the government's own Ministerial Panel on the Trans Mountain concluded that there are six key questions that need to be answered before the government can make an informed decision.

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For example:

• How can Canada meet its climate-change commitments while approving the project?

• How can the project be evaluated in the absence of a comprehensive energy policy and consideration of other viable transportation and energy options?

• How can a decision be made without adequate assessment of the risks and benefits?

• How can the project proceed in the face of so much opposition?

None of these questions were answered and the evidence was not provided.

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The government's decision also relies on the National Energy Board review. Again, the problem is that both the public as well as the government say the NEB process was flawed. Our survey research shows that almost all the participants (86 per cent) rated the NEB process as poor to very poor and independent polling shows one-half of Canadians have little to no confidence in the NEB.

The government also stated that it was convinced the project is safe, again relying on the NEB conclusion. The government seemed unaware that the NEB conclusion that risks are acceptable does not cite any spill probabilities that it relies on to reach this conclusion and is inconsistent with the evidence from both Trans Mountain and other intervenors that the probability of oil spills is as high as 99 per cent.

The government no doubt hopes that its rejection of Northern Gateway and tanker ban will allay opposition. But opponents will point to the obvious inconsistency of protecting the North Coast from tankers while saying tankers are okay on the South Coast where the risks are at least as high.

But the most unfortunate part of the decision is that the government had a choice that would have left all Canadians better off. It could have deferred a decision on Trans Mountain and appointed a multistakeholder group including First Nations, industry, and other stakeholders to engage in a collaborative process to gather the missing evidence, answer the questions posed by the government's panel and seek greater public consensus.

This was the approach used to solve the war in the woods in B.C. to the satisfaction of everyone involved. And this approach likely could have resolved the pipeline conflicts if it was only given a chance.

The downside of this option is minimal. Canadian oil production forecasts have declined significantly and the approval of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the oil industry to access world market prices until about 2023 and possibly to 2030 without building Trans Mountain. Building the TMEP and other proposed pipelines as planned will just create empty space.

Unfortunately the government chose to make a rushed decision without seeking social consensus and without gathering the necessary evidence. And unfortunately we are all likely to pay a high price for this decision for a long time to come.

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