Trudeau government at pains to explain Pacific Northwest LNG

"Today, the federal government approved the Pacific Northwest LNG project," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reported. It is, McKenna said, an investment worth $11 billion. But she was at pains to justify it.

Environment minister says 'environment and the economy must go hand in hand'

Catherine McKenna, left, federal minister of environment and climate change, announces the approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project at the Sea Island Coast Guard base, in Richmond, B.C., as Premier Christy Clark looks on. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

It is, of course, very easy for the leader of the opposition to say.

But no doubt imagining that the question might very soon be moot, Rona Ambrose stood in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon and demanded Justin Trudeau make a decision on the potentially lucrative Pacific Northwest LNG project. 

"Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister is failing when it comes to backing our resource workers and their families," she said. "He has been faltering on making decisions on major energy projects and this has to stop."

In fact, it probably already had. Trudeau's cabinet met on Tuesday morning and three ministers were already on their way to British Columbia to announce a decision.

"The Pacific Northwest LNG will provide thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment," Ambrose declared, "at no cost to taxpayers."

Ambrose would seem here to have defined cost rather narrowly.

If, for instance, you attach some value to the natural habitats of wild salmon or the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions, you might have found the case in favour of Pacific Northwest less obvious.

"Mr. Speaker, these workers and families need the prime minister to make a decision. They can't afford to wait any longer," Ambrose finished.

Everyone would have to wait another seven hours for an answer. 

Then, in the fading light of the early evening in British Columbia, three Liberal ministers appeared at the water's edge in Richmond, the Fraser River flowing behind them.

"Today, the federal government approved the Pacific Northwest LNG project," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reported. She was flanked by Jim Carr, minister of natural resources and Dominic LeBlanc, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

It is, McKenna said, an investment worth $11 billion. But she was at pains to justify it.

Such are the forces that Trudeau's government has promised to somehow reconcile.

Getting resources to market in the 21st century

"As the prime minister has emphasized, the only way to get resources to market in the 21st century is if it can be done sustainably and responsibly," McKenna said.

The government's assessment, McKenna said, was "rigorous," based on both the "best available science and on Indigenous traditional knowledge." Final approval depends on the meeting of more than 190 "legally binding" and "scientifically determined" conditions.

Public input was quantified (more than 34,000 submissions) and assuredly considered. Indigenous communities, the minister explained, were "meaningfully consulted" and, where appropriate, accommodated. 

The salmon will be taken into account. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowed to be emitted by the facility will be capped. And the premier of British Columbia was ready and willing to raise the province's carbon tax (just as soon as a federal-provincial plan on climate change is finalized).

None of which was quite enough.

Trudeau's climate legacy

Stand.earth, an environmental organization that touts just how much oil it has helped keep in the ground, called Trudeau's decision a "climate fail." Dogwood, the BC organization, declared that "Trudeau's climate legacy" was now "on life support." The Pembina Institute said it was a "step backward for climate action in Canada."

Naomi Klein, the activist, author and co-promoter of the Leap Manifesto, was unimpressed. The Trudeau government, she said, had just broken the commitment it made in Paris last fall: that is, to do its part to limit future global warming to no more than 2 C.

But, while Pacific Northwest will undoubtedly be a significant source of GHG emissions, contrasting Klein was McKenna's assurance that all projects "must fit with Canada's plan to meet our international obligations."

The Trudeau government now need only explain how.

If it can be demonstrated that Pacific Northwest is not a matter of sacrificing the future of the planet for the sake of economic interests in the near term — if this fall's talks with the provinces conclude with a credible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the Trudeau government will be significantly nearer to a complete argument.

Which is not to say the agreement will be nearly unanimous.

On Tuesday afternoon, hours before a decision was confirmed, interested Indigenous leaders were warning of "protracted litigation." On Wednesday, the Liberals will likely be assailed by the New Democrats for alleged shortcomings in the process and reasoning. The Conservatives, meanwhile, will probably go back to moaning about the imposition of a price on carbon.

And then this will all play out again in December when the Trudeau government has to decide on the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the port of Vancouver.

The Trudeau government's fate

It is easy to lament for how fraught these decisions have become or how amorphous the notion of social license is. But we should also probably not pine for a day when we did not worry about fish habitats, climate change or Indigenous rights.

This is resource development in the 21st century. Were it possible to go back to the 20th century and properly face the questions of climate change and Indigenous reconciliation, we might not be at this point now. But even if better is always possible, time travel is not.

And so this is the Trudeau government's fate.

"You have certainly heard me say that the environment and the economy must go hand in hand," McKenna said on Tuesday, this being another of those things that is easy to say.

"We worked extremely hard to deliver on this promise today."

That work is far from over.


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.