On Tuesday, to no surprise, the Trudeau government discounted the opposition and gave the pipeline project the green light — for the second time. The project was originally approved in 2016 but was sent back by the Federal Court of Appeal, which cited the government’s failure to sufficiently consult indigenous peoples in the approval process and its failure to take marine life into consideration. So, the government revisited the process and, as expected, came to the same conclusion. This time, however, it said that profits earned by the government from the pipeline will be invested in green projects and technologies.
The decision came just one day after the House of Commons voted — without Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh or Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who were all at the Toronto Raptors victory parade — to accept a motion presented by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna to declare a climate emergency and reaffirm Canada’s Paris Agreement targets. The tension between the two positions was not lost on observers, some of whom wondered aloud how one could declare a climate emergency while buying a pipeline and approving its twinning.
The government was always going to approve the Trans Mountain expansion. But now that the pipeline decision has landed as we have long anticipated, what comes next?
The Liberal Party will campaign on the argument that environment and the economy go hand in hand, that the previous process — under their Conservative opponents — was a failure, and that the current opposition leader, Scheer, has no credible plan for addressing climate change. The Conservatives will claim the Liberals are bad for business, citing the fact that the pipeline has been approved but not yet built (though they were not quite the Pericles of building pipelines, themselves). The New Democrats and the Green Party will argue that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are offering nearly enough to address climate breakdown and that the pipeline shouldn’t be expanded at all.
Should it? If we take seriously our Paris Agreement targets, and the October 2018 warning from the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that says we have a dozen years left to save ourselves from catastrophic climate breakdown, probably not.
The government may have accepted the pipeline, but its stamp of approval is not indelible. There will likely be legal challenges that will at least slow its progress. And should construction press on further, opponents of the project have indicated that they’ll resist it through direct action.
Moreover, as things stand, the fall election is likely to be close — which means that it’s uncertain whether the Liberals will retain control of government or manage to secure a majority government. If the New Democratic Party or the Green Party end up holding the balance of power in October, the Trans Mountain project’s future will be cast further into doubt.
Recent polling suggests that a majority of Canadians support the project, including those in British Columbia, the pipeline terminus, where the twinning has been particularly controversial. But Canadians are also increasingly concerned about climate change — even if they’re not ready to pay to do something about it.
Nonetheless, awareness of and concern about the climate emergency is present and growing. If opponents can successfully link the Trans Mountain Pipeline to climate threat in a way that resonates with voters, its support might weaken, especially as the country struggles through extreme weather events such as floods and forest fires.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline project is, ultimately, a critical test of Canada’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis, upholding the rights of indigenous peoples and protecting the environment. It won’t be settled at the cabinet table. It will be settled in the courts, at the ballot box and, perhaps, even in the streets.