Justin Trudeau’s Two-Faced Climate Game

A caricature of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at a protest against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion near Vancouver, Canada, in March. The company is threatening to quit the project under sustained pressure by environmentalists.Credit Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
A caricature of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at a protest against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion near Vancouver, Canada, in March. The company is threatening to quit the project under sustained pressure by environmentalists.Credit Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

At the Paris climate summit meeting in December 2015, Canada’s freshly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took the podium before his new international fan club and declared, “Canada is back, my friends!

The young, charismatic Mr. Trudeau promised “sunny ways.” He was ideally positioned to shift the country to a greener future, away from its reliance on resource industries and toward improved relations with Indigenous peoples whose territories are imperiled by energy projects. Yet more than halfway through his mandate, he has adopted the backward energy and economic policies of his predecessor Stephen Harper, an ardent fossil-fuel promoter. Mr. Trudeau has revealed himself to be not a climate crusader, but a pipeline pitchman who tells the world one thing while doing the opposite at home.

Within a year of committing in Paris to ambitious targets, Mr. Trudeau and his federal Liberal Party had rendered his pledge meaningless. The government approved a pair of heavy-oil pipelines and a liquefied natural gas plant. Its members secretly cheered as Donald Trump was elected, and moved toward resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline. (Two other pipeline projects were terminated earlier in Mr. Trudeau’s term, but he can’t take credit; one was quashed in court and the other was canceled by the company.)

Hanging in the balance now is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Edmonton, Alberta, to the outskirts of this city. The project, led by a subsidiary of the Texas-based energy company Kinder Morgan, and with investment from Canadian banks, would triple the flow of bitumen to the coast to 890,000 barrels a day and produce a sevenfold bump in tanker traffic. A heavy-oil spill could be catastrophic for Canada’s largest wild salmon run, many whale species and British Columbia’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry. The estimated carbon dioxide emissions associated with the project would equate to adding about 3 million cars a year to the road. Environmental activists have “warriored up.”

The Trudeau government is now being pressured to answer an ultimatum by month’s end from the company, which is threatening to quit the project, said to cost 7.4 billion Canadian dollars ($5.9 billion).

While campaigning, Mr. Trudeau made assurances about fixing the farcical environmental review process for prospective energy projects that was cultivated by Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. The Liberal government later announced it would adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations where an industrial project threatens their traditional lands and waters. Canadians had good reason to believe he would take real steps toward change.

Yet the prime minister was engaging in doublespeak all along. As early as 2014, Mr. Trudeau stated he was “very interested” in Kinder Morgan’s pipeline. A year before, he had trumpeted the Keystone XL pipeline in a speech to executives at the Calgary Petroleum Club. His biggest gripe with Prime Minister Harper was little more than “divisiveness.” Where Mr. Harper sought to criminalize opponents as eco-terrorists, Mr. Trudeau’s big idea was to rebrand the energy conversation with friendliness and diplomacy. It has been long evident he would stay loyal to a fossil fuel-based economy.

Kinder Morgan’s opponents in British Columbia, the province where the pipeline would terminate, felt dumbfounded and betrayed when in late 2016 the Trudeau government approved the project and then doubled down. Tens of thousands of people began holding marches, inundating social media, signing action pledges and lawyering up. After the company erected razor wire fences around its terminal in late 2017 and initiated preparatory work, opponents organized more muscular defiance. In March, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested more than 170 people who were blocking Kinder Morgan equipment, including indigenous demonstrators and the federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

The company has now demanded the federal government deliver “final certainty” about the pipeline’s future by May 31. The prime minister immediately called emergency meetings with his cabinet and the premiers of British Columbia and Alberta, who have antipodean hopes for the outcome.

Mr. Trudeau now has only limited options: Forge ahead, preparing to use sustained police force against demonstrators and designating public funds to minimize Kinder Morgan’s risk. Or let the project expire and make good on the Paris commitments.

On the home front, Mr. Trudeau asserts that pressing forward serves the “national interest.” He has repeatedly declared the “pipeline will get built” by citing a clause in Canada’s Constitution the government could employ to override provinces for projects of nationwide importance. Yet Canadians largely wouldn’t benefit under this scheme because most oil revenues don’t flow to public coffers, rather, increasingly to foreign companies. Even the supposed Asian demand has been vastly exaggerated. Exporting raw bitumen also would ship away potential refinery jobs. And legal experts argue that so-called national interest doesn’t trump Aboriginal rights that are equally enshrined in the Constitution.

Big-footing British Columbia and its First Nations, even if constitutionally viable, would likely damage Mr. Trudeau politically. Is he willing to tarnish his image and Canada’s peaceful reputation by deploying the military? He’s now in a familiar standoff against some of the country’s most tenacious environmentalists, reared in the birthplace of Greenpeace. In the 1990s, the “War in the Woods” protests against the logging of old-growth trees in Clayoquot Sound prompted major changes to provincial forestry policy; it was ultimately named a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Fifteen years later, pitting the army against Indigenous grandmothers and teenagers simply for protecting their waters and the Earth could jeopardize 18 of his party’s parliamentary seats.

Mr. Trudeau all the while is keeping up appearances abroad, like recently vowing to “redouble” climate efforts with President Emmanuel Macron of France. That smacks of duplicity when a day earlier he offered public money to backstop the pipeline. Should the government guarantee investment, the company could attempt construction with minimized risk, and if that fails, head home while casting Canada’s politicians as an inept scapegoat (and potentially setting up a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Canada under Nafta). But it’s a long shot for sureties so soon.

Salvaging the embattled pipeline with tax dollars would be foolish and wasteful. It won’t halt civil disobedience that could stretch construction for years, nor beat mounting legal challenges by seven First Nations, two conservation groups and the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby. The lawsuits themselves pose an existential threat, contending Aboriginal groups were not adequately consulted, ecosystems and drinking water could be polluted, and orca and other endangered species will be harmed. (Kinder Morgan has already acknowledged in disclosures to shareholders that its permits could be voided.)

Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Trudeau is left with but one viable option: discard the pipeline and focus on greener pastures. To create jobs, he should ramp up the environmentally sustainable infrastructure program he campaigned on and pivot to the accelerating renewable energy sector.

Mr. Trudeau speaks persuasively about Canada’s leadership on climate, but in reality he’s trying for the impossible: to convince every side that he can please them. A pipeline will either go in the ground, or it won’t. The prime minister must show he’s worthy of his job before the 2019 election and act decisively. Rather than choosing between the provinces, or the oil lobby and eco-conscious voters, he should think hard about what best embodies his “sunny ways” principles — justice, science and saving the planet.

Damien Gillis is a co-director and producer of the documentary film “Fractured Land” and the publisher of the online journal The Common Sense Canadian.

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