Trudeau extends olive branch to Western Canada, vows to build Trans Mountain despite opposition

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Two days after much of Western Canada rejected the Liberals on election day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today vowed to be more sensitive to the needs of Alberta and Saskatchewan and to build the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline in the face of entrenched opposition from environmentalists.

Trudeau told a press conference in Ottawa this afternoon he clearly has to do more to earn the trust of people in the two resource-rich provinces. He said that work will start with ensuring more pipeline capacity is brought online so that oil producers can sell their product abroad at prices closer to the going world rate.

While Trudeau campaigned on a promise of more aggressive action to fight climate change, he said nothing has changed with respect to the government-owned Trans Mountain project and insisted it will be built after years of legal wrangling.

‘In the interest of Canada’

“We made a decision to move forward on the pipeline because it was in the interest of Canada to do so, because the environment and the economy need to go together. We will be continuing with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion,” he said.

“Albertans and people in Saskatchewan have faced very difficult years over these past few years because of the global commodity prices, because of the challenges they are facing. For a long time they weren’t able to get their resources to markets other than the U.S. We are moving forward to solve those challenges.”

Lengths of pipe for the Trans Mountain expansion project are stacked at Edson, Alta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

If built, the 1,150-kilometre expansion project would nearly triple the existing pipeline’s capacity to 890,000 barrels a day. It would transport product directly from Alberta’s oilpatch to coastal B.C. for shipping to markets in Asia.

Trudeau has promised any profits from the existing pipeline — pegged at some $500 million a year in corporate tax revenue alone — and the planned expansion will be used to fund green-friendly initiatives to help tackle climate change.

The federal Liberal government has twice approved the $7.4-billion Trans Mountain expansion. Ottawa bought the project from its original U.S. proponent, Kinder Morgan, in 2018 after that company threatened to end all essential spending on the project in response to outspoken opposition from B.C.’s provincial NDP government.

Even after a stunning court decision in August 2018 quashed the Liberal cabinet’s initial approvals, Trudeau promised to build the project “the right way.” After another consultation process with Indigenous peoples and an improved environmental review, cabinet again approved the project in June 2019. The Federal Court of Appeal is currently reviewing an appeal by Indigenous groups of that second approval.

Trans Mountain’s fate not up to MPs

While Trudeau might have to rely in this minority Parliament on vote support from the NDP and Green caucuses — two entities that have expressed strident opposition to Trans Mountain — the project’s future does not depend on any one vote in the House of Commons.

In Canada, major natural resources projects like pipelines go through a regulatory review process led by the Canadian Energy Regulator (or, as it was known until recently, the National Energy Board) . It falls to cabinet, and cabinet alone, to give the project a final “yea” or “nay.” And while those decisions are subject to judicial review, it’s not up to individual parliamentarians to decide whether a particular project is approved.

Trudeau said he has spoken recently with Western leaders like Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi about how the federal government can support a region that has struggled with slumping commodity prices and constrained export capacity.

“I will be reaching out specifically to westerners to hear from them … to talk about how we can make sure that the concerns, the very real concerns of Albertans, are being addressed and reflected by this government,” Trudeau said.

“This is something that I take very seriously, as a responsibility, to ensure that we are moving forward in ways that benefit all Canadians. I will be listening and working with a broad range of people to ensure that happens.”

When asked if he’d appoint ministers from the two provinces, Trudeau said that is something he is now “reflecting on.”

Trudeau said that not all past federal governments had representation from every corner of the country. He said there are other approaches that could offer regional representation; he didn’t say what they are.

Some observers have suggested Trudeau could appoint new Western Canadian representatives to the Senate and have them sit as cabinet ministers to give Alberta and Saskatchewan a voice at the table. Former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed financier Michael Fortier to the Senate to give his government more representation from Quebec.

But Trudeau pointed out that the Senate appointment process is not like it was in the past, as nominations are now governed by an independent, merit-based system.

There is a precedent for naming people who do not hold a seat in Parliament to cabinet.

For example, former prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Pierre Pettigrew and Stéphane Dion to cabinet. However, in both instances, the two men also agreed to run in upcoming byelections in safe Montreal-area seats.