Justin Trudeau flew back to Ottawa on Sunday to do what he does best: smile, shake hands and get his picture taken. What he didn’t do was clear a pathway for the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and deal with a gathering storm that’s shaking Confederation to its foundations.
The summit was a high-profile showdown between the prime minister and the two provincial leaders most closely associated with the pipeline, British Columbia Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Trudeau hoped to use this face-to-face meeting to resolve this contentious pipeline issue.
Horgan, however, remains unmoved. Apparently he heard nothing from the prime minister that would convince him to dismantle the intricate network of environmental and legal impediments his government has created on this cross-border project.
Disturbingly, this hastily-arranged meeting has unleashed a tsunami of petty provincialism.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard spoke out strongly against what he sees as federal government bullying.
And according to Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec’s minister responsible for Canadian Relations, “The recent assertions of federal representatives regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline … are detrimental to a proper resolution of this issue and raise concerns for the future.”
Although the federal government has the political strength and the legal and moral authority to push this much-studied and nationally-approved project through, the politics suggest otherwise.
No Liberal prime minister can afford to alienate British Columbia and Quebec in defence of what is perceived to be Alberta’s carbon-spewing oil and gas industry. It just won’t happen.
Alberta’s left-leaning premier Notley, on the other hand, is clearly desperate. For her, this project is personal. If the pipeline is delayed or cancelled, her plan to balance the Alberta budget will be lost. So will any chance of the governing NDP being re-elected in 2019.
Ironically, both Kinder Morgan and the Alberta government claim to be championing the national interest in order to get this project going.
Regrettably, Canada has no agreed principles, national goals or formally-declared strategy on energy from which to define the national interest.
There’s no plan to sustain a Canadian-controlled energy sector. Nor is there a plan to provide Canadians with reliable sources of affordable energy in the transition from traditional hydrocarbon sources to (still emerging) renewable energy sources.
The very idea of a national energy strategy is off-limits in Canada and has been since the present prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, attempted to impose the National Energy Program (NEP) in the 1980s.
The bitter memory of the NEP still stings in Alberta.
But because of the failure of the NEP, there’s no national consensus on energy when the country needs it most.
It’s testament to the fragile nature of Canadian unity that building a nationwide consensus on any important topic is almost impossible. And attempting to do so is perceived to be political suicide.
For example, Pierre Trudeau’s attempt at forming a national consensus around the popular idea of patriating the Canadian Constitution almost blew the country apart.
The efforts to bring home the British North America Act and to institute the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Canadians were bitter and divisive. The political drama they unleashed was almost beyond belief. What ought to have been relatively simple process turned into a brutal tug of war between narrow-minded provincial interests.
And this deeply divisive process occurred with a subject area where the principles and obvious benefits were upfront and largely agreed.
Failing to build a national consensus on energy risks doing even more damage.
Without consensus, expensive and time-consuming energy projects like Kinder Morgan will simply not be developed. Interprovincial relations between self-interested provinces could easily descend into anarchy, with petty squabbling over trade issues and divergent environmental agendas erupting on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
More importantly, lacking a national strategy means conceding Canada’s energy future to a handful of multinational corporations with no interest in Canada or its energy future.
The prime minister needs to prepare for the fight of his generation. Trudeau needs to strengthen his position and establish a vision of our energy future that meets the demands of Canadians for energy security in the short-medium term while aligning with their hopes and dreams of a sustainable energy future.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.