Analysis

Why Energy East is a delicate Liberal balancing act for Justin Trudeau

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre may not be the last Liberals to debate the merits of the Energy East pipeline. But can Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sustain the balancing act required by his party's national electoral footprint?

The debate over Energy East could pit Liberals against Liberals — again

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre debated the Energy East pipeline project on Radio-Canada's talk show Tout le monde en parle. (Radio-Canada)

Winning a strong and stable national majority government means winning seats from coast to coast. And when those seats lie along the path of a cross-country pipeline like Energy East, that could cause some complications if different regions of the country don't see eye to eye on building that pipeline.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his party holding seats all along the proposed route of the Energy East pipeline, finds himself in that delicate situation.

One of those seats is Saint John-Rothesay, the terminus of the pipeline. The Liberal MP for the riding, Wayne Long, recently defended himself from attacks by Conservative MP Candice Bergen, who had presented a motion in the House of Commons supporting the construction of Energy East.

In an op-ed published in the Telegraph-Journal last week, after he and his fellow Liberals had voted against the Conservative motion, Long wrote that he saw "Energy East not just as an important project for my riding, but as a project of national significance. We need to stop playing partisan games. We need to build this pipeline — but first we need to do it right."

This map shows shows which federal ridings the Energy East pipeline would cross if it is built to carry bitumen between Hardisty, Alta. and Saint John N.B. The black section of pipeline currently carries natural gas from East to West. The white sections of pipeline would be added, and the entire pipeline reversed, to complete the route if the project receives approval. The red ridings are held by the Liberal MPs, the orange by NDP MPs, the dark blue by Conservative MPs and the light blue by Bloc MPs. (CBC)

The Liberals have announced measures that they say will improve the environmental assessment process for pipelines compared with the approach used while the Conservatives were in office. The National Energy Board has yet to give the go-ahead for public hearings on the Energy East pipeline.

From Alberta to Saint John

TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline would traverse six provinces. Once completed, the pipeline would send 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from one end of the country to the other.

From Hardisty in Alberta, the pipeline passes through Conservative-held ridings in southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba before clipping the Liberal riding of Winnipeg South. From there, the pipeline continues through Tory-held ridings and into northern Ontario through seats held by the Liberals in the west and the New Democrats in the east.

Turning south, the pipeline then runs through Liberal and Conservative ridings in eastern Ontario and south of the national capital toward the St. Lawrence River. From there the pipeline heads north again into Liberal ridings in western Quebec before moving eastward north of Montreal through four ridings held by the Bloc Québécois.

From the north shore of the St. Lawrence the pipeline heads through ridings held by the NDP and Liberals, crossing under the river and into Conservative ridings on the south shore of the St. Lawrence around Lévis. Finally, after a short trip through an NDP riding in the Bas-Saint-Laurent, the pipeline heads into Liberal-held New Brunswick and southward to Saint John.

This map shows shows which federal ridings in Ont., Que. and N.B. the Energy East pipeline would cross if it is built to carry bitumen between Hardisty, Alta. and Saint John N.B. The red ridings are held by the Liberal MPs, the orange by NDP MPs, the dark blue by Conservative MPs and the light blue by Bloc MPs. (CBC)

The portion of the pipeline running from the Alberta-Saskatchewan border to the St. Lawrence in Ontario is already built, but needs to be converted to take oil rather than natural gas. The rest of the pipeline that crosses into Quebec and through New Brunswick would need to be constructed.

In all, the pipeline's route passes through 40 ridings, 17 of them currently held by the Liberals, 15 by the Conservatives, and four apiece by the NDP and Bloc. New pipelines would need to be built in 11 of the Liberal ridings, but only six of the Conservative ones.

Balancing regional views

Because of the variety of regions the pipeline will pass through, Trudeau may have a hot potato in his hands. 

In the face of slumping oil prices, the West wants the pipeline built. So does New Brunswick, which expects thousands of jobs to come out of it. Public opinion in Quebec, however, is strongly against the pipeline, and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has given voice to that opposition.

Supporting the pipeline poses few problems for the Conservatives. The pipeline already exists in most of the Conservative-held ridings that it will pass through, and its supporters in Alberta and Saskatchewan are clearly behind trying to get the pipeline approved.

The clutch of Conservative MPs in Quebec have an incentive to support the pipeline, which will provide crude oil to the Valero refinery in Lévis. One recent survey also suggested that opposition to the Energy East pipeline was weaker in and around Quebec City, where the Conservatives hold seats, than it was elsewhere in the province.

The Liberals are much more likely to feel pressure on both sides of the debate. In addition to holding a few ridings in Quebec through which the pipeline would pass, the party also holds the bulk of the seats in the Montreal region.

This map shows shows which federal ridings in Que. and N.B. the Energy East pipeline would cross if it is built to carry bitumen between Hardisty, Alta. and Saint John N.B. The red ridings are held by the Liberal MPs, the orange by NDP MPs, the dark blue by Conservative MPs and the light blue by Bloc MPs. (CBC)

Liberal MPs in Ontario will see little direct benefit from the pipeline for their ridings as it winds past, and their constituents may consider they instead carry the risks. The mayor of Thunder Bay has already expressed his opposition to the pipeline, which would pass just north of his city (and through its two Liberal-held ridings).

On the other hand, all of New Brunswick is represented by Liberal MPs, and Premier Brian Gallant, has been a vocal advocate of it being built — leading to the Liberal premier debating former Liberal MP Coderre on the merits of the project on Radio-Canada's popular Tout le monde en parle talk show.

These intra-Liberal debates are unlikely to dissipate any time soon, as the hearings for the Energy East pipeline could drag on for months.

So far, Liberal MPs seem to be reading from the same page on the issue. But if tensions do not yet exist between those Liberals who represent ridings in which the pipeline will be built (publicly, at least), their constituents may soon put the pressure on them to think differently.

In addition to mediating between rival political leaders from different ends of the spectrum, Trudeau may soon be at risk of having to referee disputes within his own national caucus.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited to remove maps that displayed incorrect riding information.
    Feb 16, 2016 11:58 AM ET

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.