Oil Tankers and Meaningful Consultation: a Story of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

The federal Liberal cabinet took quite the grilling during question period on Monday, and perhaps rightly so. The decision of the Canadian government to purchase the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in August for $7.4 billion was a major source of contention at the time, dividing Canadians across the country along provincial lines (not to mention within the provinces themselves). It seemed as though the political saliency of the issue was at an all-time high.

Then, on August 30th, the Federal Court of Appeals effectively halted all progress on the pipeline, ruling against the Canadian government in a decision that will perhaps prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Canadian environmentalism. The Court of Appeal’s ruling was twofold: first, it overturned the National Energy Board’s approval of the project, citing that the NEB had not adequately taken into account the environmental impact of oil tankers along the coast of BC as part of the pipeline’s infrastructure, and thus was incomplete and invalid. The second, and much more highly publicized facet of the ruling cited inadequate consultations with indigenous peoples.

Though the ruling prompted much celebration on the part of indigenous rights groups and grassroots activists, the victory came at a cost. Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, immediately announced that she would be pulling her province out of the pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The move, while not only extremely disappointing to proponents of the environment, also came with an ominous warning from Notley herself: “let's be clear – without Alberta, that plan isn't worth the paper it's written on.” The framework had been developed as a compromise between the provinces and the Trudeau government, but Notley is right in pointing out how crucial Alberta is (or was) to the plan’s success.

This brings us back to Monday. The cabinet announced their intentions to “promptly” continue with the project, despite the setbacks. Minister of Finance Bill Morneau took a particularly pointed query from the Honourable member from Milton, Ontario, Lisa Raitt, asking if the Prime Minister was going to deliver “yet another fall season of failure.” This garnered applause throughout the chamber. Morneau’s response emblematized the Liberal government’s position in the debate — which is to say it problematically labeled the construction of the pipeline as “critically important to Canadians.”

Which Canadians? Some of them, sure, but certainly not all of them.

The rest of the response was devoted in part to criticizing the Harper government for failing to get Canadian resources to market, which, though it might seem deflectionary, is actually a very common tactic in parliamentary procedure. Morneau’s response also touched upon the government’s intention to meaningfully consult indigenous peoples, and to adequately consider concerns of the environment. This begs the question, however: why were these aspects not made a priority before?

Going forward, the government of Canada has very clearly signalled their intention to continue with the construction of the pipeline expansion if they are licensed to do so. This means that the hard-won victory of the Canadian voices who picketed and protested and fought in opposition to the pipeline might be short-lived. Re-submitting the project to the National Energy Board for approval once tankers have been taken into account won’t be hard to do, though it will take some time. The real difference will be made in the consultation with indigenous peoples, and the government’s ability to stretch the word ‘meaningful.’ Indigenous rights groups (for the most part) are opposed to the pipeline, and that’s not a position that’s about to change. The question then is how staunchly the Liberal government is willing to stand by their commitment to those who are native to the land through which they’re trying to build a $7.4 billion pipeline.

Either way, the outcome of the consultation is likely to shape both Canada’s economy and our environment for decades to come. And make no mistake, when Canadians return to the polls next fall, they will hold the Trudeau government accountable.

photo credit: Justin Tang/the Canadian Press