Justin Trudeau and the political calculus behind the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines

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      By the end of this year, a promising young Liberal MP from British Columbia could become a political dead duck.

      In 2015 Terry Beech won a surprising victory in Burnaby North–Seymour against strong NDP, Conservative, and Green candidates, in part because Justin Trudeau's national campaign energized his team of supporters. 

      Another factor was Trudeau's emphasis on his deep North Vancouver roots—his grandfather, James Sinclair, was the MP for nearly two decades. That's why Trudeau made a big deal in TV ads by declaring that he had B.C. in his blood.

      But as prime minister, Trudeau also appears to have Alberta, the Conservatives, and the national media in his head. And this is why I expect that Trudeau's cabinet will approve Kinder Morgan's proposal to triple bitumen shipments to 890,000 barrels per day to the West Coast through a new 1,150-kilometre pipeline project. It begins in Sherwood Park south of Edmonton and terminates in Burnaby.

      The deadline for a decision is December 19.

      If approved, the Kinder Morgan project will result in more than 400 oil tankers per year passing through the waters alongside Beech's riding, which straddles parts of North Vancouver and North Burnaby. It will also lead to a major expansion to the Kinder Morgan tank farm in Burnaby, which is of concern to officials at Simon Fraser University.

      That's why a Liberal green light for Kinder Morgan will likely finish off Beech's re-election chances.

      So why would Trudeau be prepared to sacrifice a sharp young MP who could easily become a senior cabinet minister in a future Liberal government?

      It's because the prime minister is more concerned about playing to the conventional wisdom in this country, which clings to the belief that Canada is a petrostate and that exporting oil from the tar sands is central to our economic future. It's a vision articulated by former prime minister Stephen Harper and, apparently, embraced by Trudeau.

      It's also the view of the Conservative Party of Canada, Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley, B.C. premier Christy Clark and members of her cabinet, and the central Canadian media.

      Trudeau campaigned against Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline, which will terminate at Kitimat. He supported TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta into the United States. And he has been remarkably vague about the Kinder Morgan project.

      Expect Trudeau to mollify the political establishment by saying yes to Kinder Morgan, and persuading the incoming Trump administration to put the Keystone XL pipeline on the front burner. Trudeau can then say no to Northern Gateway and make the case that he's taking a balanced approach.

      Liberal MP Terry Beech (with wife Ravi) surprised many political observers when he won Burnaby North–Seymour in 2015.

      In fact, approving two new pipelines has the potential to disrupt the climate, given that they will remain in use for decades.

      Here's what Nature magazine reported in 2014 about the Keystone XL proposal: "We find that for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption would increase 0.6 barrels owing to the incremental decrease in global oil prices. As a result, and depending on the extent to which the pipeline leads to greater oil sands production, the net annual impact of Keystone XL could range from virtually none to 110 million tons CO2 equivalent annually."

      Here's what Ecojustice's Patrick DeRochie has stated about the Kinder Morgan proposal: "The expansion would add the annual carbon equivalent of 2.7 million cars to the atmosphere and would increase tanker traffic in Vancouver harbour seven-fold."

      According to Greenpeace, that's four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as have been saved to date by the province of British Columbia.

      Of course, the stakes are high for the energy companies, which record proven reserves as assets on their balance sheet.

      But if these assets become "stranded" underground, these same companies will have to write down their value, likely causing their share prices to plummet. 

      Trudeau has tried to mollify environmentalists with a series of promises, including introducing a national carbon tax. He's offered to phase out coal-fired electricity production by 2030. His minister of transport, Marc Garneau, has pledged to introduce world-class oil-spill response on the West Coast.

      But this will do little to quell the concerns of British Columbians. Most of them see little upside in the approval of a pipeline that could, in the end, wreak economic havoc if there's ever an Exxon Valdez-style tanker accident along the coast. This could devastate the Vancouver and Victoria tourism industries.

      That's to say nothing of the climate impacts of the Kinder Morgan and Keystone XL projects.

      Approximately 400 oil tankers per year will travel through Burrard Inlet if the Kinder Morgan project gets the go-ahead.
      Travis Lupick

      Politically, Trudeau likely sees approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline as an opportunity to divide New Democrats in B.C. and Alberta.

      Alberta premier Rachel Notley supports the project whereas it has been heavily criticized by B.C. NDP leader John Horgan.

      Trudeau also likely sees the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline as opening up opportunities for his party to win seats from the Conservatives in Calgary, Edmonton, and parts of Saskatchewan in 2019.

      And if it means that Beech, Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, and North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson are defeated in the next election, the Liberals still come out ahead.

      That's the short-term political calculus.

      The long-term reality, however, is that major new pipeline projects will lock the world into burning even more greenhouse gases.

      And that could prove devastating to Trudeau's political brand.

      He has an opportunity to show younger voters that he shares their concerns about the future of the planet. Or he can make a cynical move to blunt the Conservatives, divide the NDP, and pander to the national media by approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline application.

      At the end of the day, federal Liberals almost always side with the establishment. Why should it be any different this time around?