Trudeau's tightrope: PM blamed for failing planet and pipelines, all at the same time

Environmental leaders said this week they have lost faith in Canada's prime minister after a series of pipeline approvals and the failure to restore environmental protections stripped away by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

‘Even building Teslas you need oil and gas,’ says oil industry advocate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks a fine line between environmental interests and the energy sector in Canada. (Joel Krahn/Canadian Press)

Environmental leaders said this week they have lost faith in Canada's prime minister after a series of pipeline approvals and the failure to restore environmental protections stripped away by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

Since coming to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau has been walking a tightrope between the oil industry and environmentalists.

On Tuesday a trio of green leaders, including Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and longtime activist David Suzuki, took a swing at the Liberal leader, saying the party's environmental values are only surface deep.

"I don't know what it takes to get the people we elect to office to do things — to do things," said Suzuki.

Pumpjacks pump crude oil near Halkirk, Alta. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

But oil executives disagree, saying the prime minister's anti-carbon initiatives are slowing industry and hurting Canada.

They see the environmentalists winning, not losing ground. "They are coming out swinging and trying to intimidate Trudeau," said Mark Salkeld, chief executive of Petroleum Services Association of Canada who calls the attack of Trudeau on environmental grounds "ridiculous."

Suzuki's warnings came as Hurricane Irma swirled toward Caribbean islands and while Trudeau toured B.C. wildfire zones. Suzuki pointed to floods, fires and climate-related storms worldwide — even to the smoky skies in Vancouver.

"What the heck does it take for us to recognize that we have entered … a period in time when humans have become the dominant factor shaping the world we live in," he said.

"Economy has become the most important issue. More important than the very air that allows us to live," said Suzuki.

'Look at the air around us. We know about forest fires around British Columbia. We know about Hurricane Harvey. We know there are droughts in other parts of the planet. We know about megafloods. What the heck does it take?' asks environmental activist David Suzuki. (CBC)

May said the Canadian government has fallen down on the job of environmental protection by approving pipelines and failing to shore up environmental protections as the planet undergoes climate change.

The Green Party leader said she's watched with "great shock and alarm" as the Liberals failed to restore environmental protections she said were dismantled by the Harper government — from waterway protections to industry environmental assessments.

She said Trudeau is putting Canada at risk by leaving "the worst aspects" of Harper's changes to environmental laws in place while fires rage, floods devastate and storms break records.

No pipeline champion

But oil executives say the Greens have it wrong and that Trudeau is "no oil pipeline champion."

"Trudeau is walking a fine line between different interest groups and frustrating both and not making anybody really happy, said Salkeld.

In Salkeld's view, Trudeau is pandering to environmentalists and non-governmental organizations, when he knows Canada needs a mix of energy including fossil fuels — and will for some time.

Trudeau met with Kelowna firefighters while touring the wildfire zones in B.C. on Sept. 5. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

"Even building Teslas you need oil and gas," said Salkeld.

He said that "Suzuki-style fear-mongering" hampers a safe, necessary industry, ignoring the reality that Canadians couldn't survive a winter without the oil and gas that remains in demand world-wide.

"The oil and gas industry is not going anywhere any time soon," he said.

"In Canada we will transition, but I can tell you by 2040 we won't be burning it like we burn it today, but we will still be using it as feedstock for the petrochemical industry for the thousands and thousands of products," he said.

The oil industry argues that Trudeau is failing it, despite his approval of the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline project and his alignment with U.S. President Donald Trump in backing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to run from Alberta to Nebraska.

Salkeld said the federal government's move to review the National Energy Board's (NEB) environmental assessment process is an unnecessary move to appease environmentalists.

So Trudeau balances — walking his high wire in a volatile global political climate where oil executives and activists alike wait to pounce for any misstep.

Hurricane Irma tracks over Saint Martin and the Leeward Islands early on Wednesday Sept. 6. Warming oceans are being blamed for stronger hurricanes. (NASA/NOAA GOES Project via AP)

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. @ybrend