Alberta needed a win—and finally got one

The approval of two pipelines is cause to celebrate in hurting Alberta. But it could also keep Canada’s environmental plan on track.
Justin Trudeau, Rachel Notley
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speak during a meeting on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

In a possibly unprecedented move, the federal cabinet has abandoned a $7-billion pipeline project that, while it had been beset by legal challenges, was recommended for approval by the National Energy Board. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also sealed off the northern B.C. route to any future pipelines, banning oil tanker traffic along that part of the coast. Had this been announced in isolation, the howling from Alberta politicians and the business community would have broken Calgarian eardrums.

Trudeau instead placed that bad-news meat for Alberta between two pieces of delicious bread: approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to a Vancouver-area harbour and the Enbridge Line 3 replacement line through the Prairies to Wisconsin. The laudatory statements from the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and Premier Rachel Notley both neglected to mention the precedent-setting rejection of Northern Gateway; the premier, when pressed on it after her meeting with Trudeau, shrugged it off as win-some lose-some. The oil and gas industry’s main lobby group only mildly tempered its enthusiasm Tuesday with a note of disappointment about the pipeline that will now never be.

MORE: Breaking down Trudeau’s pipeline approval speech

There’s some strategy and economic/emotional reasoning behind this. It’s been a second straight dismal year for Alberta: tens of thousands of layoffs, a boom-loving Calgary now stuck with 10 per cent unemployment and seven per cent apartment vacancies (and much worse in the hollowed-out downtown skyscrapers), and a novice NDP government drowning in deficit and struggling to prompt a few green shoots of growth or economic diversification. Provincial politicians couldn’t lift the price of oil, but federal politicians had the power to pave the route for that oil to market. “Today we are finally seeing some morning light,” Notley announced. The NDP, deeply unpopular in Alberta, is keen to herald a job-creating project, and Trudeau wanted to make sure everybody could notice Notley’s arm raising in triumph: “Let me say this definitively: we could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta’s climate leadership plan,” he said.

Combined, the Line 3 replacement and the twinned Trans Mountain pipeline add one million oil barrels worth of transmission capacity—enough to handle Alberta’s production for nearly a decade, according to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe. Add to that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s anticipated green light to Keystone XL, and Alberta’s oil sands now have abundant future room to boost exports both to the United States and Asia, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted.

The government and business groups saw the glass either full or full enough. Environmental groups saw a glass in tiny pokey shards, its contents spilled in all directions and coating everything in black tar balls. British Columbia’s Dogwood Initiative called it a “cynical betrayal,” and called for a petition to block the project.  To Greenpeace, it was “dark days ahead for climate action,” and forecast civil disobedience and federal litigation. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson had his statement of dismay videotaped in advance. None of these missives mentioned Northern Gateway either, in part because they saw this win as one that was already in the books after the Federal Court had voided the Harper-era approval because there hadn’t been enough Indigenous consultation.

MORE: Why Trudeau will suffer politically for approving Trans Mountain

But James Glave is a low-carbon advocate who doesn’t share his fellow travellers’ universal pessimism today. He’s a former official with Clean Energy Canada* who’s now a communications consultant on environmental initiatives. Like many others, he expected Tuesday’s package of Ottawa decisions, as well as environmentalists’ fury. In a memo last week to clients and others he knows, Glave urged people to keep in perspective everything the federal government has done on climate, rather than focus on what the entire movement has focused on for the last several years since pipelines became the benchmark issue for wins and losses on the planet’s welfare. Ottawa has fast-tracked the phase-out of coal power, mandated new clean fuel standards and imposed a pan-Canadian carbon price (and Alberta has now pledged to boost its price in line, to $50 per tonne by 2022). Taken together, these actions constitute one of the most aggressive climate-action agendas of any federal government in the world today. Really… “Even industry is on board,” Glave writes:

“The eNGOs out West want a strong climate plan, but they also really don’t want that pipeline expansion approved, and the additional oil tanker traffic it would bring — at least, that is, until global oil demand craters and economics strand the project. In their minds, the circle just doesn’t square. But without that approval, the whole shebang might well end up dead in the water at next month’s first ministers meeting.

A Kinder Morgan green light could well be one of the playing cards that is perilously holding the tower together. The British Columbia-based influencers above, and the movement they give a face to, will not yield an inch on it. (To be clear, I’m not saying they should, just that they won’t.)”

Glave tells Maclean’s he expected blowback from his environmentalist counterparts. To his surprise, he didn’t receive any. But it’s easy to see why activists are in no mood to cede ground publicly if the fight is for the planet’s future and tarball-free B.C. waterways.
Trudeau said Tuesday the push toward a low-carbon future will be a gradual one—he didn’t quite admit it would be bumpy and include setbacks, though he did delight Big Oil and Alberta by saying no country would leave such vast oil reserves in the ground. Canada is taking action on climate change (and not giving the oil sector everything it wants) like never before, even with a couple of pipeline expansions and oil sands growth toward Alberta’s new 100-megatonne emissions cap. Success for Trudeau and Notley will be measured in how many Canadians they can get to nod along with that assertion.

Correction: A previous version of this post said that Glave worked at Tides Canada’s clean energy branch. Tides Canada has severed its ties to Clean Energy Canada.