Politics·Analysis

Both sides of pipeline debate play out at Liberal Party convention in Winnipeg

In a pair of keynote speeches, Liberal Party delegates gathered in Winnipeg were presented with differing views on Canada's oil industry and the future of pipeline development.

Friday morning speakers present differing views of resource development

Keynote speaker Peter Tertzakian presents at the 2016 Liberal biennial convention in Winnipeg, Friday, May 27, 2016. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

​"​Last time we spoke, Prime Minister Trudeau encouraged me to speak my mind and push hard whenever I felt we might collectively err," said Steven Guilbeault, the environmental activist invited to address Liberal Party delegates first thing on Friday morning. 

"Let's talk pipelines then."

A pleasant weekend in Winnipeg suddenly seemed in danger of being ruined, or at least livened up.

Guilbeault proceeded to address the prime minister directly.

"Prime Minister, large pipeline projects have failed to get social licence from all across the continent. From Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kitimat, B.C., to Montreal, Quebec — communities don't want them," he said.

"The atmosphere and our climate certainly don't need them. Many of us believe we cannot build pipelines and meet our international climate commitments at the same time.

"And with a world working around the clock to avoid the worst of climate change, it makes no sense from an ethical and a moral perspective to produce and ship more of a substance that is causing a problem, that disrupts the future of our children and grandchildren. There are much better things to do."

Suffice it to say this is not the official position of the Liberal government.

"I know this is hard for some of you to hear," Guilbeault said, "but I believe it to be the truth."

And in this truth, he included not only pipelines from Alberta but also liquid natural gas in British Columbia and oil and gas development in Quebec.

Guilbeault later said it was a "credit" to the Liberals "that they would invite on stage someone who disagrees with them and give that person carte blanche to say whatever he wanted, no strings attached." He said he sensed some wincing when he told organizers what he planned to say, but he had not been asked to refrain from saying anything.

In the hallway after Guilbeault's remarks, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna posed for pictures with the environmentalist and then defended his presence on the main stage.

"The good news," she said, "is the Liberal Party wants to hear from a diversity of perspectives." 

Environmental activist Steven Guilbeault explains why building pipelines will push Canada's climate goals beyond reach. 0:28

'Some of the best oil in the world'

That play was becoming apparent inside the main hall as the convention moved to remarks by Peter Tertzakian, an energy analyst and economist with ARC Financial.

Tertzakian said he was "aligned with Steven and others" on the "need to tackle this problem" of climate change. "Where I differ," he explained, "is the route to go." 

Transitions in energy, he said, "never all or none … there's often a balance and a mix in an economy." And transitions take time. 

What's more, he ventured, we should be "proud of all the resources we develop. Because we're good at it." Canadian oil, he said, is "some of the best oil in the world in terms of its responsible development and its cleanliness."

"We need to get out and teach the rest of the world and supply the rest of the world with a type of energy through this transition that everyone needs," Tertzakian said.

This was something like a cross between Ezra Levant's argument about ethical oil and Trudeau's approach to the question of pipelines.

The national questions of the moment

Together, pipelines and climate change amount to the generational and national questions of the moment. And it is these questions that tore a chasm through the middle of the NDP convention last month; Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and the country's only NDP government on one side, Avi Lewis and the Leap Manifesto on the other.

This being the Liberal Party, the matter was handled quietly with a relatively genteel exchange of speeches. Two sides can come away feeling that their views were represented without the party being quite yet tied to a position on any particular project.

This is also in keeping with the Liberal government's repeatedly stated desire to listen and consult at, and before, each and every turn.

It's possible this form has some function; that, in hearing everyone out, the government will be more likely to find acceptable solutions and less likely to be outright condemned for the solutions they eventually settle on. In the meantime, it is a handy way of demonstrating #realchange from the aloof ways of the previous government.

Reconciling the economy and the climate

A while after Guilbeault and Tertzakian had taken their turns, the environment minister and the natural resources minister were on stage as part of a session on "how growing Canada's economy and climate change action can go hand in hand."

A more-than-middle-aged man from North Bay, Ontario, stood and told the ministers that the big issue back home was the Energy East pipeline, which is to run under the town's sole source of drinking water. He'd been to a meeting organized by anti-pipeline activists and heard all the "predictable" arguments about what might happen.

There was large group in the audience, he said, "who are reasonable people and who honestly hope that you can grow Canada's economy and at the same time deal with climate change." But how to reconcile these things, how to build pipelines and meet international climate targets, was a "puzzle," both to him and to other "rational people."

This, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said, was a question he and his office deal with on a daily basis. "But," he added, "we have to reconcile different interests all the time in government."

The way to do this, Carr explained, was to set up a process that hears all perspectives. 

(Resources were going to have to move somehow, he also noted, and so how to move those resources most safely had to be considered, an implicit argument in favour of pipelines, at least as opposed to rail transport).

Ultimately, he said, the government would have to make a decision.

Political courage

It's possible the process will get the government closer to a popular decision, but it's also possible it won't. At least not entirely.

This much Carr would seem to concede in response to another question.

Each day in the House of Commons, he said, the government is presented with questions representing the views of four different political parties.

"No single answer is going to satisfy all four of those perspectives, not to mention our own," he said. "The reality of governing and of politics is that you make tough decisions that don't satisfy all the people. Courageous politicians that look generationally at what's best for the country, I think, are the ones we want and, I hope, the ones you've elected."

Possibly even the minister is interested to see what happens after the time for talking is over.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.