The Pipeline

Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister on a broadly leftish program, two key planks of which included reconciliation with indigenous peoples, and environmental stewardship, including especially a response to climate change.

Before the last election, I cautioned that it is a long Liberal tradition to run on the left and then to renege on their campaign promises. Now we’re three years in and most of the promises have been broken. That includes the promises of reconciliation and stewardship.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley could have handled this a lot better as well. It’s not her fault that the U.S. discovered shale oil and that world prices tanked. It’s also not her fault that 44 years of Conservative government didn’t produce the needed pipelines to salt water. But her response hasn’t been strategic, and it doesn’t match what she was saying before the election.

The message before the election was that Alberta should invest in refining and value-added processing for its oil reserves, rather than to simply pipe them south to be burned. There is a future in the oil industry, but not as an energy source. You can be in the oil industry and be environmentally responsible while developing a hydrocarbon-based manufacturing industry. But Alberta didn’t do that.

Even a pipeline strategy would have been much easier to sell fellow-NDP premier John Horgan in British Columbia if it were a part of a broad-based environmental strategy. The two premiers should have met in order to declare a common (and progressive) front on environmental issues. Alberta oil could have been seen as a boon to BC industry.

Completely absent and totally unhelpful in any of this has been federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Trudeau could have emerged as the peacekeeper, crafting a policy that respected the interests of everyone concerned while supporting Alberta in a time of need. Instead, he chose the politics of the bludgeon, choosing to impose a pipeline on a province and a people that clearly doesn’t want it, and in the process betraying his commitment to both the environment and to indigenous peoples.

Because, let’s be clear, the time to ship oil to market to be burned is over. The warnings on climate change are clear. We are already seeing some of the consequences. The cost, both to Canada and internationally – will be far greater than the cost of adapting Alberta’s economy to a post-fossil fuels future.

But we don’t actually have a strategy that takes environmental stewardship seriously. We have, at best, a strategy based on a hope that market forces (along with carbon pricing) will fix this on their own. Oh, they may fix it, but what we know about the market is that it doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Maybe it’s Alberta. Maybe it’s indigenous people. It doesn’t matter to the market.

The problem with making promises you know you’re going to break is that these promises aren’t based on any vision except for your own short-term success. And without a vision to sustain them, there is no guidance when things get difficult. And things are getting difficult.

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