Like it or not, Trans Mountain is what a pipeline 'compromise' looks like

The decision to proceed with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project was never going to make a lot of people happy. It's hard to see where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had much of a choice.

A great many people will be furious Trudeau chose this option - but it may have been his only path

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion with Minister of Finance Bill Morneau in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau has his pipeline, again — a pipeline he owns both politically and literally.

Legal challenges will again be filed against the Trans Mountain expansion. The government of British Columbia will remain opposed to the project and committed to appealing its case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, construction will resume. The proverbial shovels will be in the ground.

The question now is whether Trudeau will get much credit for that.

Responding to Trudeau's announcement on Tuesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer went so far as to suggest that Trudeau didn't even really want the pipeline built — which comes close to suggesting the last few years in federal politics have been part of a very elaborate, and very expensive, ruse.

"Canada has never had an anti-oil and gas government like the current Liberal government," Shannon Stubbs, the Conservative MP for the Alberta riding of Lakeland, has said.

To be specific, Stubbs said this on May 7, just six weeks ago and nearly 12 months after Justin Trudeau's cabinet agreed to use the resources of the federal government to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion, preserving plans for the expansion.

'Show me the pipeline. I don't believe he actually wants it built,]' Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in reaction to Trudeau's announcement. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In fairness, the Conservatives have other complaints — the cancellation of Northern Gateway, the Liberal government's desire to ban tanker traffic along British Columbia's northern coast, the Liberal rewrite of federal energy regulations. And perhaps the Official Opposition should never be expected to praise (or even merely agree with) a government's decision.

But those who think Trudeau doesn't really support the construction of a pipeline should at least be made to speak with those who are absolutely shocked that he does.

Twice in the last four years, Trudeau has been confronted at public forums by individuals who were surprised to learn that he actually supported pipeline development.

In both cases, and again on Tuesday, Trudeau paused to remind his audience that his support for that sort of thing goes back to 2013 — when he went to Washington and stated his support for Keystone XL, and then visited Calgary to say that it's a "a fundamental role of the government of Canada ... to open up markets abroad for Canadian resources, and to help create responsible, sustainable ways to get those resources to those markets."

'We need to create wealth today so we can invest in the future'

4 years ago
Duration 44:59
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces his government will approve the Trans Mountain pipeline and then takes questions from the media.

In attempting to discharge that responsibility, no doubt he has disappointed some Liberal voters — particularly in British Columbia, where both Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May, loud opponents of the expansion, will be competing to benefit from Trudeau's losses.

Why saying 'yes' is easier than saying 'no'

The most strident environmentalists will now complain anew that Trudeau has betrayed his commitment to combating climate change. And that message might resonate beyond B.C., in places like the leftier salons of Toronto and Montreal. And approving the Trans Mountain expansion might not make much of a difference for Liberal fortunes in Alberta, where voters are quite comfortable in their belief that Trudeau is insufficiently supportive of their province's principal industry.

It's possible that Trudeau lost more votes today than he won. But not building a pipeline is altogether easier said than (not) done.

However much some politicians might stoke and raise regional grievances for their own political gain, there can be little doubt that a rejection of the Trans Mountain expansion would have sent a significant and dispiriting message to Alberta. The term "national unity" is thrown around a bit too loosely, but Trans Mountain might have provided a very real reason to worry about it.

At a moment of climate emergency, it might be tempting to say pipelines should be forbidden and the Canadian oil industry should be wound down in short order. But it's less than obvious how that would be done while both holding the country together and replacing the oil sector's contribution to the national economy.

The quest for 'balance'

Economically, the failure of another major project likely would have rattled markets, investors and the business community. Politically, the collapse of the Trans Mountain expansion would have reflected poorly on Trudeau's ability to manage both the economy and the federation.

Trudeau's original promise was that he could get the balance right. That he could build a pipeline and be environmentally responsible. That being environmentally responsible would make it possible to build a pipeline. And that building a pipeline would provide the economic growth and revenues necessary to fund a transition to a cleaner future. He was at pains on Tuesday to make this case again, speaking for 25 minutes to explain his decision.

'I doubt his sincerity because he hasn't actually done anything'

4 years ago
Duration 19:45
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer responds to the government's approval of Trans Mountain by saying he doesn't believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau really wants the pipeline built.

He enumerated the steps taken to improve marine protection, to take into account the welfare of whales and salmon. He emphasized the new efforts to consult with Indigenous communities, in response to the Federal Court of Appeal's ruling last fall that the government's first attempt to do additional consultations was insufficient. He again explained the economic case for expanding access to the world oil market.

He did not dwell on the fact that he had ended up having to buy a pipeline to keep the project, and his promise of a grand bargain, from collapsing.

That neither Scheer nor Elizabeth May would end up very happy was inevitable. The hope, from the outset, was that somewhere between the loudest proponents of a pipeline and the loudest opponents, there could exist a significant number of voters willing to accept Trudeau's bargain.

"We know that there are still going to be people who remain unconvinced. But I also know that the vast majority of Canadians understand that we need to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time," Trudeau said on Tuesday, using the shorthand he has relied on to convey a compromise that involves both building a pipeline and pricing carbon emissions.

The proof of Trudeau's ability to pull that off will be measured in the number of votes cast for the Liberals this fall.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.