It is amusing to hear warriors in the endless battles over pipeline approval jump up and down and shout about “the law,” “the environment,” “regulatory approval” or even “the Constitution.” Even veterans, who know better on both sides, often refuse to publicly concede the reality of how a project moves from pipe dream to production.
The hard truth is that pipelines are always and only about politics.
Every major pipeline we have built in Canada since the Second World War was typically the product of a long and difficult political battle. The first cross-Canada pipe, the project that gave birth to Trans-Canada Pipeline, helped bring down the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent in 1957.
The infamous Pipeline Debate, ended nearly half a century of Liberal hegemony, and elected John Diefenbaker. It ushered in a period of political instability with six elections in just over a decade, ending only with Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 majority.
Next came the four-year fracas over the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline starting in 1974, which despite several attempts to revive it — the last as recent as the Harper era — remains stillborn. The pipeline inquiry, led by Justice Tom Berger, became a multi-year political crusade in defence of First Nations rights, environmental concerns, and was eventually seen as an attack on the oil and gas sector itself.
The oilpatch found the inquiry’s attacks on new oil development and transport especially galling as it came just as they were then attempting to build support for massive public subsidies to launch the first oilsands projects. The beautiful full-colour photo laden reports of the Berger Inquiry sold in the thousands. The inquiry’s impact on debate about Indigenous rights, the environment and resource development is felt even now.
Along the way we then had a series of more short-lived battles over Energy East, Northern Gateway and Keystone XL. Energy East fell victim to politics, most damagingly its poisonous reception by the government of Quebec. Northern Gateway died at the hands of enraged and empowered First Nations, and a series of governments unprepared to take the political risk of defending the transport of heavy oils through the pristine waters surrounding Haida Gwai.
Keystone is the one win for big oil in this generation’s big projects. It is only being built as a result of the most improbable, “Big Coal, Big Oil,” climate change denier to ever sit in the White House.
Then there is the doubling of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The suffering it has inflicted on politicians in two provinces and prime ministers in two successive governments is without precedent, even in our long painful pipeline history.
Here the politics are especially cruel: if Ottawa does not more aggressively support the government of Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley — until now a useful friend and ally — is likely to be replaced by the hard-right Jason Kenney, a far more serious threat to Trudeau’s re-election than Blandrew Scheer.
If Trudeau does overpower B.C.’s environmental objections, however, he risks losing a dozen or so B.C. Liberal MPs, a cohort essential to winning a new majority government. It is one of politics’ binary choices between the excruciatingly painful and the simply unacceptable.All sides might have done a better job gaming out prospective responses years in advance, to find any forms of acceptable compromise. This was, given our history, a completely predictable 11-hour impasse.
Ironically, whether it is built before the next cycle of elections or not, Notley’s vigorous defence of Alberta has taken wind out of Kenney’s sails, who can now only promise to bellow louder as a response. The John Horgan government will need to find a face-saving way out, possibly in a spring election. But it is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who seems likely to be another, almost inevitable, pipeline victim today, like St. Laurent and his father before him.
In the ironies of political life, there is one solution that might have made this collision of interests avoidable. It is to have taken the oil across the Fraser River and through Washington State to an existing offtake port on the U.S. West Coast. This was the earlier planned route that almost killed the first pipeline to move oil from the Leduc oilfields to American markets.
B.C. Tory and Liberal MPs at the time were appalled at the suggestion of a non-B.C. route, demanding that the federal government force Standard Oil and Bechtel to build the pipeline through their province. Such was their determination that the rerouting was made a condition of the enabling legislation that passed in March of 1951.
The name of the private legislation and its creation was: The Trans-Mountain Pipeline Act.