Opinion

Why Trudeau and his Liberals are now the targets that Kinder Morgan once was

"There never should have been the need for the buyout. It is a crazy outcome to a crazy situation."

'There never should have been the need for the buyout. It is a crazy outcome to a crazy situation.'

With all the recent drama over the Trans Mountain pipeline, Rex Murphy says it's strange that it took so long for things to get to this point. (Kinder Morgan, CBC, Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Our government will stand up for Steeltown jobs — and the jobs of aluminum and steelworkers across Canada

From within the endless scroll of the Twitterfeed, its glitter and gutter, one particular tweet called me to a halt. It was from Catherine McKenna, the climate change minister, and was posted hours after the Americans put a tariff on Canadian steel. The minister is nothing if not quick. The tweet chirped:

Rather than dance around, let's go with the obvious question right away.

When was the last time the minister had a tweet about oilpatch jobs? Where was that swift digit hitting the Twitter highway following the various, deep hits to the oil industry, which has been under so many guns — prices, protests and pipelines — for so many years.

Suddenly the minister for climate change has a word about jobs.

But during the long, long buildup to the pipeline crisis — which now has provinces ranged against each other, Alberta under strict environmental watch, civil disobedience threats, and tensions ignited with the whole of Confederation — were the minister and her colleagues in the federal government "standing up" for Alberta oil workers, just as now she is for those in her home riding?

It brings me to ask, what does it take to acknowledge a crisis?

If it's in Ontario, a matter of hours. If it's in Alberta, years.

The crisis in Alberta jobs has been present for years and the various forces blocking Alberta energy have been active, present and urgent for the same period.

But it took the desperate measure of Kinder Morgan setting a deadline to abandon the project for good before either the federal government or the national press wrapped their busy minds around Alberta's dilemma.

A building crisis

Ever since Kinder Morgan — driven to the end of its tether by years of obstruction, endless hearings and regulations, tepid support (if any) from politicians outside Alberta, and harassed and misrepresented continuously by the professional anti-oil monomaniacs — set the deadline of May 31 for a decision on continuing its effort to stay with the project, debate and confrontation has been furious.

It is more than strange that it took so long to get to this point.

For until the deadline — at least outside Alberta — the national press and national politicians were casual, sporadic and fundamentally not serious in their attention or coverage. Yet over, at a minimum, the past two years at least, the crisis could be seen building, almost on a daily basis.

It's useful to review the atmospherics that led up to the last week of May and the flurry of concern that suddenly manifested itself. It is easily recalled when Energy East was cancelled and the little attention that received. 

Twisting of the garrote

Here was a genuinely all-new project destined to bring Western oil to the Canadian East Coast, and end the embarrassment of feeding Eastern Canada from suppliers as far afield as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. It was as much a national project as Kinder Morgan's is insisted to be.

Yet when it went by the wayside there was hardly a peep. Thirty-two MPs in the Atlantic caucus and hardly a mutter, a raised hand to ask, "Why are we doing this?"

The route for the proposed Energy East pipeline is pictured as TransCanada officials speak during a news conference in Calgary before the project was scrapped. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Likewise with Trudeau's off-hand fiat on Northern Gateway.

Another pipeline cancelled. No big deal. Just the usual blather from the federal leadership, the usual self-congratulation: save the environment, leaders on climate change, and all that.

Much the same with the ban on any new West Coast tankers. This dropped into the news line with the mildest of mild thuds, though it meant another twisting of the garrote around export of Alberta's No. 1 resource.

Under the tiresome mantra of "the environment and the economy go hand in hand," these decisions dropped on the province of Alberta as if they were free of consequence, idle of impact, whereas each was one more turn of the screw, one more step toward a total blockade of Alberta's economic potential.

Each one, too, fed the increasingly justifiable opinion, inside the province and outside, that despite the "hand in hard" rhetoric in progressive Trudeau's Ottawa, the crusade for global warming was always the priority, and the oil economy, at best, a second-thought obstruction to that overwhelming cause.

Add to that the charade of the "social licence" deal.

Villainous Alberta

Remember: If Alberta tightened environmental protections, imposed a tax on its main industry, genuflected to the global warming crusade, then — maybe, possibly — the province would be "allowed" to obtain "permission" to get its oil to markets other than the United States.

The Alberta government genuflected to social licence, brought in the carbon tax — and two years later social licence is a dead phrase. It's been disappeared.

With each project cancelled, or hurdle erected, the enviro consortia tasted fresh ecstasy.

Protesters march in opposition to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion in March 2018. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Any choice that hamstrung the oil industry and villainous Alberta raised a cheer from Sierra, Suzuki and Greenpeace. But, when all this was going on, aside from a few tepid responses, a scattered warning that shutting down all outward access from Alberta might, at some point, prove a problem, might stir things up between B.C. and Alberta, might even provoke something of a national contention, it was background noise to most of the press and the political class.

What reasoning there was, and there was little, comforted itself with the easy hope that because there was still one pipeline left, and that a mere twinning of the one in place since 1953(!), all would be well, and all manner of things would be well. And that one would be a kind of door prize, or Miss Congeniality award, for the tranquil acceptance of having killed off all the others.

Not to worry was the mindset; there's always Kinder Morgan.

Creating an exclusive focus

What government didn't see, or more precisely didn't care to see, was that having diminished the options from many to one, having virtuously shut down Energy East (by new regulations) and Northern Gateway, and putting a ban on tankers, Kinder Morgan was the only project left on the board.

It exposed that pipeline to being the exclusive focus of the entire anti-oil, anti-Alberta movement.

The anti-oil monomaniacs could turn all their protest and activism to a single focus, a specific target. They were now free to make the Trans Mountain pipeline the singular target, the very symbol, of the whole climate change forces, inside Canada and beyond.

And they did.

In British Columbia, during the run-up to the election, John Horgan was going about promising "to use every tool in our tool box to stop the project from going ahead" and, even more tellingly, in signing the accord with the Green Party's John Weaver, pledged "to immediately employ every tool available to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline."

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan and B.C. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver sign an agreement in Victoria aimed at creating a stable minority government on May 30, 2017. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

The anti-oil forces were only too happy to have the field of fire brought to a single point. Likewise, those Indigenous groups who were against K-M and the mayor of Burnaby relished the opportunity to concentrate their fire.

It is crucial to note that during all this period, from the time before the cancellations of the other pipeline projects to the period of the B.C. election, during the run of anti-pipeline propaganda, the federal government and its leader, the prime minister, were nowhere to be seen or heard.

There was, of course, the statement: often repeated but passionless and tepid in its every iteration: "The government has approved Kinder Morgan, and it is in the national interest."

Never did the federal government actually make the case, articulate that great national interest, seek to counter the mounting protests and objections. It was all very much business as usual for Mr. Trudeau and Ms. McKenna, the climate duo.

Even before Horgan and Weaver became the ultimate arbiters of pipeline construction, there was a long, expensive, frustrating six years when Kinder Morgan went through the "process" — the NEB hearings, protests, amendments to approval, additional conditions, and the vast spate of consultations with the Indigenous communities along the route.

The pre-costs to construction during this same period were over a billion dollars.

The ultimate shock was the new Green-NDP government revoking the previous B.C. government's approval of Kinder Morgan. And then it adopted pure activist language against it. The B.C. government's position on the pipeline was and is indistinguishable from Greenpeace's or David Suzuki's.

All of which is how we got to the last week of May, the crisis, the press conference, the buyout. In the title words of a Leap movement leader, everything had changed.

A national project

Suddenly the national politicians actually "saw" the problem they had mindlessly been coasting through up to that point.

The prime minister interrupted a 10-day odyssey outside Canada to come back for an afternoon summit to meet with premiers Notley and Horgan. Finance Minister Morneau leaped to announce that, should Kinder Morgan step away, the federal government would backstop the project; if they should stay, he would "indemnify" the company for any losses due to "politically" inspired delays.

The federal government suddenly adopted the rhetoric of the pipeline as "a national project." Oh yes, Trans Mountain would be built; it had to be built. They were really serious now.

All of which is rather weird.

For six years, a private company has been virtually begging to build this pipeline. For six years, Alberta has been asking for access to markets other than the United States. Capital has been fleeing the province. Canada's reputation as a country in which major projects could proceed in orderly fashion, with responsible environmental and regulatory overview, has day by day been degraded.

The promise of jobs the project would create was known. The lift to the Alberta economy and national economy was obvious. But Kinder Morgan's deadline was the earthquake that exposed the federal government to the political consequences of allowing the pipeline to fail.

The grand climax

So this is how we got to the grand climax of last week.

Finance Minister Morneau's last minute leap to the barricades to announce that the federal government itself was/is going to buy out the company to "save" the pipeline.

That announcement has to be one of the strangest, most outlandish and staggering initiatives ever launched. Also, and this is key, one of the most unnecessary.

Why? Well consider just the basic elements of the whole affair.

A private company six or so years ago eagerly set out to twin its own pipeline. It was operating on its own money. Such was its commitment to the project that it endured the immense hassles already recounted.

Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan Canada Limited, poses for a photograph after opening the market in Toronto on June 2, 2017. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

During this same time, the federal authorities remained silent and, with the arrival of the Trudeau government, tellingly indifferent to the company's and Alberta's plights.

Yet, the company persisted, its desire to build withstanding all the negative propaganda, the court cases, the re-hearings, and exhausting consultation process, and the carbon tax, and even the B.C. government's cancellation of the approval a previous B.C. government had given.

Finally, however, even Kinder Morgan, through its shareholders, said: This is crazy. We're paying to build this, we are assured it's a national project, it will provide huge employment for Canadians, give it international credibility on energy projects — and yet everywhere we turn there has been an obstacle, a delay, a challenge and a protest — and simultaneously no support, or at best indifference, from Canada's government.

And so they asked: Stop playing with this. Give us a yes or a no we can rely on, or we're out.

Then, and only then, it became a paramount concern of the Liberal government that the pipeline had to be saved, even if it meant using taxpayer money of nearly $5 billion to take on the project, itself.

None of this would have been necessary if the determination of the past month had been present during the long period that brought the crisis on in the first place. The federal government, by its silence and inaction, by its signaling that "climate change" was its near exclusive priority, had singularly empowered the various opposition to the project that drove Kinder Morgan to the deadline.

Now the government harvests its own mistake, with $5 billion to buy out the project it failed to support. There never should have been the need for the buyout. It is a crazy outcome to a crazy situation.

Finally, to pile irony on irony, the purchase of Kinder Morgan effectively does nothing — nothing — to change the central dynamic at play here: whether a climate change government will face down the climate change activists who have pledged in public to do all they can, and everyone knows what that means, to stop construction.

A new target

Will this government, really, stand up to the protesters? Will it have the fortitude to take on the very groups, that in their messaging on climate change, is actually a mirror of the federal government's own messaging?

There is no ground for optimism here.

Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals are now the targets that Kinder Morgan was.

If anything, this will only intensify the eco-opposition. We have a climate change government facing down a climate change opposition. This has much to contribute to the national sense of humour.

But it's a very feeble reed on which to build confidence that this much-promised pipeline is any closer than it was to actually being built than it ever has been.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


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About the Author

Rex Murphy

Commentator

Rex Murphy was born and raised in St. John's, where he graduated from Memorial University. In 1968, Murphy, a Rhodes Scholar, went to Oxford University (along with former U.S. president Bill Clinton). Back in Newfoundland, he was soon established as a quick-witted and accomplished writer, broadcaster and teacher. He was the long-time host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup. Murphy has given paid talks to energy companies.

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