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Steel pipe to be used in the construction of the Trans Mountain expansion project lies at a stockpile site in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Protesters attend an anti-Trans Mountain rally in Vancouver in December.
It is possible, it appears, to build an oil pipeline in Canada.
Though not a 100 per cent, absolute dead certainty — Lord knows what schemes opponents may still have hidden away — this would appear to be the outcome of two recent court cases, one of which ruled that British Columbia can’t stop a pipeline from Alberta just because it makes some of them feel good, the second that Indigenous Canadians do not have an absolute veto over legislation affecting them, despite whatever impression the prime minister may have given, and no matter what the United Nations may think of the situation.
It is a big moment in Canadian history. Other countries have civil wars, coups d’etat, plagues of locusts and demented presidents. In Canada we devote vast resources to arguing over whether one pipeline that goes to an ocean port can be joined by another pipeline going to the ocean port. Of all First World countries, Canada must have the most spare time to fight over First World problems.
For the forces that threw their weight against the project, there have been significant gains. A pipeline that was supposed to have oil flowing by the end of last year has been delayed by several years and billions of dollars added to the cost. Legislation has been passed making it infinitely more difficult to move ships and transmit crude in parts of the country where access is critical if it’s ever to reach the waterline. The oil industry has been forced to accept that the old ways of doing business will no longer pass muster, and any future success will depend heavily on their ability to show real and effective consideration for environmental impact.
It’s fair to say Canada’s general environmental awareness has been increased markedly, and the treatment of Indigenous communities pushed beyond mere lip service into areas of honest respect, and attempts at improvement. There’s still work to do on that front, but at least there’s been headway.
And, not least, we all got the thrill of celebrities making their way to Alberta to demonstrate that ignorance is no impediment to fame. Will anyone ever forget Leo DiCaprio thinking a Chinook was the first sign of Armageddon? That alone was worth the price of admission.
The delays have come at considerable cost
On the other hand, the aim of the resistance has not been achieved. Trans Mountain looks likely to make its way to the Pacific, and the delays have come at considerable cost. Regional tensions have been significantly increased, pitting Albertans against British Columbians and Quebec against provinces both to its east and west.
At a broader level, much of Western Canada has become convinced it has no friend in the federal government, and particularly in the Liberal party, and that the second-class status it feels it receives will never be adequately addressed under the existing structures of Confederation. It’s not good to have one of the country’s most dynamic provinces, home to an industry critical to the national economy, feeling it is forever treated with disrespect, and simmering with anger over what to do about it.
Thanks to the inability to increase pipeline shipments, crude has been loaded onto trains trundling across the prairies despite warnings that rail is more dangerous and more threatening to the environment.
Twice in the past two months there have been derailments in Saskatchewan, with fire and smoke billowing great, grey clouds into the sky, and people evacuated from their homes. The second derailment was only 10 km from the first. A difference of a few minutes and it might have occurred in the middle of the hamlet of Guernsey , with all the memories that would have raised of the disaster at Lac-Megantic, where 47 people lost their lives from a runaway oil train.
For some reason these disasters have never managed to alter the perception among opponents that if they can just make things difficult enough, Canada will stop producing and selling oil, or their failure to grasp that people were paying a price in safety for their obduracy.
The financial cost has also escalated in tandem with the delays. Trapped by its own machinations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government felt compelled to buy the pipeline and stick the tab on the public purse.
The latest calculation sees the price increasing to $12.6 billion from $7.4 billion, including money spent before Ottawa paid $4.5 billion to take the project off the hands of the original owners. Finance Minister Bill Morneau declared his confidence the project will still be “commercially viable,” which some analysts may doubt given his demonstrable inability to control the government’s own spending, or hit deficit targets.
But perhaps the battle over Trans Mountain has had some beneficial impact on Liberal thinking, particularly that of the prime minister, who must have realized by now that pandering to activists can carry significant risks, and that jobs and the economy are too important to risk over a bit of rhetorical self-indulgence.
Soon he will face the vexed issue of a proposed new oilsands project in Alberta, pitting a $20-billion mine and the potential for billions of dollars in wages and royalties against his remaining credibility as a climate change warrior.
No wonder he headed to Africa on a diplomatic mission soon after last weeks’ ruling came down. First World issues are hard.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020