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Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline under way in Kamloops, B.C., on Sept. 1, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Two years ago, when Justin Trudeau campaigned as a leader fighting climate change, he was dogged by one simple question: Why did you buy a pipeline?

Now he’s got a new answer.

On Sunday, the Liberal Leader unveiled a new series of climate policy proposals, with a promise to set federal caps on the greenhouse gas emissions of the oil and gas industry every five years, starting in 2025, and decreasing to net-zero in 2050.

If that sounds like a pretty abstract answer to questions about why the Liberal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018, well, it is. But on Monday, Mr. Trudeau had a much more blunt translation of what it would mean: It would stop oil sands expansion.

“The biggest concern that people have around the pipeline is, ‘Oh, we’re going to see oil sands expansion,’” Mr. Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Granby, Que. “No, we’re not.”

“We’re not going to see an increase in those emissions. And that’s really important.”

Yes, the Liberal Leader followed that assertion that the oil sands would not expand with a verbal asterisk, that it is emissions that won’t be allowed to increase, and will have to keep going down. But that first part – no oil sands expansion – was the message.

It is a blunt answer to the pipeline question: TMX doesn’t matter, anyway, because the oil sands wouldn’t be expanded.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about that, too. What are the actual targets for reducing emissions? Would they be so stringent they would effectively bar all new oil sands from being built? By what mechanism would the federal government enforce that?

But politically, Mr. Trudeau needed a new answer. The Trans Mountain pipeline, and the project to expand it, was a weight around the Liberal Leader’s neck in the 2019 campaign, especially among green-conscious voters, especially in Quebec.

When Mr. Trudeau tried to argue that his government was taking action on climate change, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party pointed to TMX.

Mr. Trudeau’s argument then was that there had to be a transition, that gasoline was going to be used for years, and that in the meantime a Liberal government had put a price on carbon. He still answers that, too. But the question never really went away.

It comes up when he blasts Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole for setting lower emissions-reduction targets than the Liberals, as he did yesterday. Or when he criticized Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet for approving oil drilling on Anticosti Island when he was Quebec’s environment minister, as he also did yesterday.

On Monday, the Liberal Leader also defended the 2018 decision to buy the pipeline as a necessary unpopular choice, and “leadership.” But when he remarked at a news conference on Monday that all Liberal candidates defend the decision, it was awkwardly false.

One of the Liberal candidates standing beside him, cabinet minister and former prominent environmentalist Steven Guilbeault, has never been in favour of the pipeline purchase. But he argues that he joined the Liberals because their overall climate policy is ambitious and effective.

“My position on the pipeline is clear,” he said later. “We’re not going backwards. We’re not going to rewrite history.”

Maybe not, but Mr. Trudeau has redrafted the answer to the pipeline question for 2021.

As it happens, some of his opponents were getting stuck on the complexities of pipeline politics, too. In a television interview Sunday night, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wouldn’t say if he would cancel the TMX expansion project, already under construction. Mr. O’Toole said he would revive the cancelled Northern Gateway pipeline project from Alberta to northern B.C., though it has been opposed by B.C. Premier John Horgan, but not approve a pipeline through Quebec, which would be opposed by Quebec Premier François Legault.

In the meantime, Mr. Trudeau has found a new answer: The oil sands wouldn’t be allowed to expand. Emissions would have to decrease, not increase. It’s a blunt answer, though it’s still not quite clear if it is as straightforward as it sounds – but it sounds simpler.

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