OTTAWA—Facing a political test that could mark his government as dithering or decisive, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is vowing that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be built, as Ottawa considers a “broad range” of unspecified “options” to make the controversial project a reality.
Those options could include direct investment or some kind of financial backstop to the project, as the Alberta government says it’s prepared to make, or withholding discretionary federal spending from British Columbia to punish the provincial NDP government for delaying its own permits and threatening more court challenges to the project. It could even see Ottawa assert federal constitutional authority over the project and guarantee construction via a promise to arrest protesters who are equally adamant to stop it.
“We are determined to see that pipeline built. It is in the national interest,” Trudeau said Monday in Montreal, setting the stage for federal intervention to push ahead with its construction.
Neither Trudeau nor Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is ruling anything out after the government of Alberta and Kinder Morgan, the company behind the pipeline, stepped up pressure on the federal Liberals.
Kinder Morgan, which gave Ottawa a heads-up on Saturday, announced Sunday that due to “extraordinary political risks,” it was suspending non-essential spending on Trans Mountain until May 31 while it seeks greater “clarity” for its investors that the project can indeed proceed.
Trudeau, who has staked his own political fortunes on the project by promising to get Alberta oil to market, said, “This is an important project, not only for the western part of the country but for all of Canada.”
In an interview with the Star, Carr signalled the Liberal government is prepared to act “with our willing partners … to create the environment within which there’s sufficient clarity for the project to proceed.” But Carr refused to provide details other than to say the government will address the “anxiety” in the oil and gas sector around “competitiveness” issues, including nervousness that has intensified since the U.S. brought in broad corporate tax cuts.
He later told CBC that Ottawa has legislative, regulatory and financial tools to get the pipeline built.
Carr denied the Liberal government has failed to champion the project and allowed opposition in B.C. to grow, saying people there “feel passionate” about the issue and are free to express opposition “as long as they do it legally.”
If opponents “go outside the law, then somebody might arrest them, and that’s happened,” he said.
Carr and Trudeau openly voiced frustration with B.C. Premier John Horgan’s opposition to the pipeline, saying he is “obstructing progress.”
“Unfortunately for the premier of British Columbia, it is not up to him to interfere with a project of national interest,” said Trudeau, adding he’d had a “long conversation” with the B.C. premier Sunday. “I can reassure all Canadians right across this country that this project of national interest will be carried out.”
For his part, Horgan showed little sign of relenting, saying Sunday his party was elected last year on a promise to “defend and protect our coast.” He held out little hope that talks over the coming weeks could break the impasse. “It is our view that provincial jurisdiction should prevail,” Horgan told reporters.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Monday she is prepared for her province to take an equity stake in the project, vowing Alberta would not be a “nervous investor.” She urged the federal government to act as well, saying Ottawa has greater fiscal and financial leverage to advance the project.
“If the federal government allows its authority to be challenged in this way … the reverberations of that will tear at the fabric of Confederation for many many years to come,” she said. “So we’re not going to let that happen.”
New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart, who represents the Vancouver-area riding of Burnaby South, said the company doesn’t need Ottawa’s financial backing but rather wants a promise the federal Liberals would send in the military to guarantee the pipeline’s construction — a move Stewart believes the government is considering, but which would trigger “massive opposition” in B.C.
Carr landed in hot water in 2016 for appearing to suggest that “defence forces” would protect the peace in the face of violent protests.
Kennedy himself was one of two MPs arrested on March 23 and now faces charges of civil contempt in connection with a protest against the project. A B.C. judge recommended Monday that the province take over the civil prosecution as a criminal contempt case. The B.C. government is to reply next week.
Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, said the federal Liberals are in a “no-win” situation. Noting that the Trans Mountain expansion would run right through the B.C. Lower Mainland, a Liberal stronghold where opposition runs high, he wondered if the party has the “intestinal fortitude” to push it through. But he said with the latest Trudeau pledge that the project will be built, the Liberals must make it happen to protect federal jurisdiction.
“I think this has gone way beyond a conflict over an individual project. I think it’s now become a challenge to federal power and the rule of law,” Crowley said. “If they fail to follow through, they will have … damaged federal standing.”