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COMMENTARY: A disappointing lack of clarity and urgency on Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi meet in Edmonton, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi meet in Edmonton, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Sarah Kraus, Global News

As part-owner, along with 30 million or so of my fellow Canadians, of the Trans Mountain pipeline, it is incredibly disheartening that I have no idea when or how the pipeline expansion project will be built.

We are now approaching the second anniversary of the Liberal government’s approval of that project and we are now past the point of any reasonable expectation that construction will commence within the confines of Trudeau’s first (and last?) term.

Last month’s ruling from the Federal Court of Appeal did indeed catch most everyone by surprise and it creates some unavoidable delays for the project. The federal government is obviously constrained by that reality.

But the much-awaited strategy announced yesterday by Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi is not exactly the sort of bold response that so many were hoping for. While I have no reason at this point to question the government’s commitment to this project, it is hard to see any sense of urgency.

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WATCH: Ottawa outlines next steps in Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, will it work?

Ottawa outlines next steps in Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, will it work?
Ottawa outlines next steps in Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, will it work?

The Liberals will first proceed with a renewed National Energy Board review of implications of increased tanker traffic and how to ensure that oceans and coastlines are not negatively impacted. That process is expected to take until at least February and then it would require federal cabinet review, which puts us into at least May. Unfortunately, that’s about the closest thing to a timeline that we have in this announcement.

There’s still, of course, the much bigger question of ensuring that there has been meaningful consultation with First Nations. We still have no idea how the federal government plans on addressing the court’s requirement on this front or how long that’s expected to take. An announcement on those details is still to come.

Moreover, there’s no word as to whether the federal government intends on appealing this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, if for no other reason than to seek further clarity on what constitutes “meaningful” consultation. Before embarking on this effort, it would be helpful to know how exactly the expectation would be satisfied.

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The Liberals also seem to be ignoring calls from the Alberta government and others to use federal legislation to clarify the process.

WATCH: Premier Notley on NEB Trans Mountain timeline

Premier Notley on NEB Trans Mountain timeline
Premier Notley on NEB Trans Mountain timeline

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley tried yesterday to find a glass-half-full perspective on all of this, but it’s clear that’s she’s lost patience with her erstwhile ally Justin Trudeau. Notley reiterated yesterday that until this pipeline is actually built, her government has no interest in participating in the federal climate plan.

It may be a moot point in that pipeline pessimism is likely to sink the NDP in the spring Alberta election, but it cinches the double whammy for the federal Liberals: going into a federal election campaign next year with both their climate plan and their pipeline strategy in shambles.

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Another element adding uncertainty to this whole situation is the government’s own Bill C-69, which has quietly advanced to second reading in the Senate. The legislation is intended to overhaul the regulatory process for natural resource projects, including pipelines. Critics, however, feel that it sets the bar far too high and that it will be near impossible to get such projects approved in the future.

READ MORE: When will the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion get built? It’s hard to tell

The Liberals have tried to have it both ways on the question of whether Canada has a solid and robust regulatory process. With regard to Trans Mountain, the Liberals have defended the review process that led to their approval of the expansion project. Yet during the last federal election campaign, and in selling Bill C-69, they’ve spoken of the need to improve a flawed process.

It’s quite possible now that C-69 could become law while Trans Mountain is still in limbo. So where would that leave us? What is the government doing to ensure that C-69 does not create additional problems for Trans Mountain, including the nightmare scenario of sending this all back to square one?

Given the stakes, one would hope to see the Liberals putting all options on the table to ensure this project goes ahead. Instead, unfortunately, we have a lack of clarity and a lack of urgency – all of which adds up to a real lack of confidence in the Liberal government’s ability to see this through.

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READ MORE: Notley says Alberta will ‘hold Ottawa’s feet to the fire’ on Trans Mountain timeline 

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.