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Trudeau in a tight spot

The oil sands pipeline debate is rearing its head again, making things awkward for Canada’s new prime minister

CANADA's dashing young prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was elected last May on a broad wave of support from all parts of the country. Suddenly, he's being caught up in Canada's fractious pipeline debate, which threatens to expose regional divisions and reopen old political wounds - especially in the oil-producing heartland of Alberta.

In the background is the approval - with conditions - from the National Energy Board (NEB), a federal regulator, of Kinder Morgan's proposed TMX pipeline-expansion project to Vancouver. The move incensed the city's mayor, Gregor Robertson, who promptly travelled to Ottawa to make a personal appeal to the prime minister to reject it outright. Native groups have vowed to block the project.

The C$6.8bn ($5.31bn) expansion would twin the existing TransMountain line from Edmonton, Alberta, to Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) and almost triple the capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 b/d. An already existing marine terminal in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb, would be expanded to handle 34 tanker loads per month, compared with five now.

Many BC residents are vehemently against oil tankers sailing along the west coast, with recent polls suggesting some 75% of residents oppose the idea. With the NEB approval, construction is to start in 2017 with an in-service date of 2019.

The TMX expansion is one of three pipeline proposals that would add almost 3m b/d of much-needed export capacity for Canada's oil sands. The other proposals are the Northern Gateway project to ship oil to Kitimat, farther north on the west coast, and the Energy East proposal to ship crude to Saint John, New Brunswick, on Canada's Atlantic coast. Production in the oil sands, now normally around 2.3m b/d, could rise to 5m b/d by 2020, say supporters, exhausting current evacuation capacity. So the lines are needed to keep the oil sands - and the Alberta economy that depends on them - growing. Some of the line's opponents, on the other hand, think that by blocking the proposals they will effectively put a stop to further oil sands development.

Trudeau is reluctant to get involved, with good reason. Anything he does is likely to alienate a motley assortment of bickering mayors and provincial premiers spanning the country - in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and even tiny New Brunswick.

Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s rightwing premier, made a speech in Calgary warning of an “existential threat” to the oil industry if the pipelines aren’t built

The fight is getting bad tempered. The mayors of Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal have fired verbal barbs at one another. The tone of the debate has dropped. Brad Wall, Saskatchewan's right-wing premier, made a speech in Calgary warning of an "existential threat" to the oil industry if the pipelines aren't built, and laced his statement with some provocations for the developments' opponents. Montreal's mayor Denis Coderre - a former federal Conservative - said of pipeline advocates that they are "probably the same people who think the Flintstones is a documentary".

Amid the rancour, Alberta's left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) premier tried to soothe feelings with appeals for calm and compromise. Alberta's legislature on 7 June passed a carbon tax that is expected to cost taxpayers C$2bn per year, an unprecedented move in an oil-producing province long opposed to federal climate-change policies. The question is whether it will be enough to smooth ruffled feathers in the rest of Canada, whose support Alberta will need to get the pipes built.

A stiff upper lip

Notley even went as far as to invite Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne to the Alberta legislature to win support for Energy East. In a sign of how divisive the debate has become, Wynne was insulted for her sexuality from opposition politicians on social media.

These are just the domestic squabbles. Pipeline backers are still stung by the US rejection of Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline to ship Albertan bitumen to Texas, and are clinging to hope it will be approved when President Barack Obama leaves office next year.

Despite a warm relationship with Obama that media observers on both sides of the border have dubbed a "bromance" Trudeau has been unable to win support for KXL. The matter was expected to resurface at the end of June, when Trudeau meets Obama and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto for a trilateral summit in Ottawa.

Awkwardly for Trudeau, KXL looks unlikely to get US approval unless Donald Trump wins the White House in November. The two men may agree on the pipeline, but they couldn't be more ideologically opposed.

The domestic politics are also tricky for Trudeau. His election victory partly hinged on support from Canada's environmental heartland in Vancouver, where his Liberal party won 19 seats - all of them at the expense of the federal NDP - because he promised to ban oil tankers off the west coast, reform the regulatory process for pipeline approvals and implement stricter climate-change policies.

At the same time, he gained four seats in oil-rich Alberta - including three in Calgary - the first Liberal seats in more than 40 years (when Justin's late father Pierre introduced an unpopular National Energy Program, sparking feelings of Albertan alienation). Animosity lingers in Alberta to this day and the Trudeau fils is eager to make amends in the province for the perceived sins of his father.

The issue is also important economically. Economists at Scotiabank have estimated that outages from the Fort McMurray fires could cost Canada a percentage point in economic growth this year - underlying just how much the country's ecomomy has come to rely on the developments. The disaster has also brought more sympathy from Canada's public, and a bit more support for the pipelines.

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