Pipeline Politics: Government decisions on TransMountain, Northern Gateway reflect public opinion
By Dave Korzinski and Ian Holliday, Research Associates
On November 29th Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government had made decisions on three pipeline projects, approving two (Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement) and rejecting the third (Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline).
The TransMountain and Northern Gateway projects have been the subject of protests and controversy for years, and the Angus Reid Institute has canvassed public opinion about each of them in that time.
Specifically, after each pipeline received approval from the National Energy Board – Northern Gateway in 2014 and TransMountain earlier this year – the institute asked Canadians whether the board had made the right decision.
As the following graph indicates, Canadians were more positive about the NEB’s TransMountain decision than they were about Northern Gateway in 2014:
In this sense – for all the angry reactions that approving TransMountain will provoke – the Trudeau government approved the more acceptable of the two projects.
This is true even in British Columbia, where opposition to both pipelines has distinguished residents from their oil-producing neighbours to the east:
Mixed reaction from Canadians and their politicians
The reaction was quick from Canadians and their political leaders. Viewers sent a mixed flow of angry face and heart emoji’s across the Facebook live stream of Trudeau’s announcement, signifying the intense debate that surrounds every pipeline conversation in the Great White North. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson expressed profound disappointment at what he called “a step backward for Canada’s economy, environment and for climate change”. Rachel Notley, premier of an economically anxious Alberta, said in a statement that the Prime Minister had shown “extraordinary leadership” with the announcements.
Meanwhile, Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose expressed doubt that the project would ultimately be built. Canadians, for their part, largely disagree with Ambrose. Even before the announcement of TransMountain approval more than six-in-ten Canadians and three-quarters of BC residents said that the project would go ahead. That said, seven-in-ten (68%) also expressed confidence that Northern Gateway would eventually get the go ahead.
The debate over environment and economy
One of the fundamental sources of discord in the pipeline debate is always the tension between economic growth and environmental impact. The Trudeau government has been placed in the middle of this dispute, having to square the demand for pipelines to increase economic activity, while imposing a tax on carbon emissions, starting in 2018, in order to reach targets of the recently signed Paris Accord.
Canadians appear to view both of these competing interests with equal importance, making these decisions a political tinderbox. Asked about protecting the environment and promoting economic growth, nine-in-ten Canadians say each should be important in the decision-making progress, with large separations between environment-minded BC and energy-minded Alberta:
The difficult political aspect of this is most evident when Canadians are asked to choose between those two options. Half of Canadians say protecting the environment (53%) is the top priority, while the other half say encouraging economic growth (47%) takes top spot. For the Prime Minister, making this decision is guaranteed to embolden some, while enraging others.
How this decision will ultimately be received is yet to be determined. In terms of political strategy, Trudeau has made a calculated play. With government approving TransMountain while rejecting Northern Gateway, each portion of the electorate has cause for both celebration and objection.