Trudeau Said He is 'Disappointed' By Rejection of Keystone XL. But Is He Really?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been Prime Minister for nearly 72 hours and for a large number of people, Canada is well into the 'Everything is Awesome' phase of his tenure.

But for some, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's honeymoon is already over. It ended around noon when he released a statement on Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, describing his administration as “disappointed.” To them it is a glaring “told-you-so” moment — one that exposes Trudeau once and for all as a corporate, right-of-centre wolf in progressive’s clothing. 

But what if it's not that moment? 

If anything, Canadians have seen that Trudeau is a savvy politician. During these early days in office he’s got a lot of politicking to do — and not just with Canadians worried about the climate.

In the same statement that Trudeau expressed his disappointment, he also pivoted to focusing on clean energy jobs.

The Government of Canada will work hand-in-hand with provinces, territories and like-minded countries to combat climate change, adapt to its impacts and create the clean jobs of tomorrow,” the statement read.

So before anyone gets themselves in a tizzy, let's take a look at Trudeau's position on pipelines more generally and explore the nuance of today's important announcement.

Trudeau’s Keystone XL Support

In October 2013 the Liberal party backed the Keystone XL pipeline and won confidence from oil industry supporters when Trudeau told the Calgary Petroleum Club, “Let me be clear: I support Keystone XL.”

But Trudeau also added, “Perhaps the greatest indictment of the [Conservative] government is this: it has had the better part of a decade to remove the barriers preventing the U.S. from approving this project.”

The [Conservative government] poked and prodded, annoyed and irritated the Obama administration at every turn. Largely, I suspect, because they don’t know how to work with people who don’t share their ideology.”

This dovetails with what Foreign Minister Stephane Dion indicated yesterday: Canada wants to take on a more refined diplomatic approach to relations with the U.S.

We don’t want it to be an irritant…we understand the Americans have to look at this very closely,” Dion said.

Both Dion and Trudeau indicated that although they support the Keystone XL, they respect the decision-making authority of the Obama administration — something the Harper government continuously strained diplomatic relations by failing to do. During his years of lobbying for the pipeline, Harper forcefully said he wouldn’t “take no for an answer” and called its approval a “no brainer.”

Trudeau responded to Obama’s decision to reject the pipeline Friday by saying, “We are disappointed by the decision but respect the right of the United States to make the decision. …The Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and co-operation.”

Trudeau’s Energy Diplomacy

The Prime Minister is playing a politically smart game, according to Kai Nagata, Director of Energy and Democracy at the Dogwood Initiative, by remaining consistent in their position on Keystone while acknowledging Canada’s relationship with the U.S. transcends this one issue.

“The undiplomatic conduct of the previous government gave Obama a lot of political cover to reject this project,” Nagata said.

He added that in the years since Trudeau publicly backed the Keystone industry has been forced into retreat by plummeting oil prices.

“The Liberals committed their support to Keystone XL when oil prices were over a hundred dollars a barrel,” he said. “The world has changed a lot since then.”

During the federal election the Conservatives lost 18 seats in British Columbia, Nagata said, in large part because of energy issues linked to the contentious Northern Gateway and TransMountain pipelines.

British Columbians are awaiting Trudeau’s final word on the deflated Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that, like Keystone, has been symbolic in the grassroots fight to prevent growing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Trudeau has also promised to revamp the National Energy Board’s pipeline review process to ensure environmental assessments take upstream and climate impacts into consideration — something the Harper government refused to do.

On the campaign trail, Trudeau told Nagata an overhaul of the review process would apply retroactively to the TransMountain pipeline expansion which is currently under review.

Nagata said a new political field has opened up for leaders like Trudeau and Obama when it comes to fossil fuel infrastructure.

I think that the drop in oil prices helped create the political conditions for a domino effect around these pipelines because the market case for them isn’t there right now.”

Trudeau's Promise of Stronger Industry Regulations and Pipeline Reviews

Along with pledging a tanker ban on British Columbia's north coast and opposing the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the new Prime Minister has also refused to back the Energy East pipeline, and promised a more robust pipeline review process.

Trudeau said environmental assessments under the Harper government were “politically torqued” and required an overhaul.

Thursday Liberal party House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said the government recognizes Energy East could have economic benefits, but indicated a stronger review process will be critical to the pipeline’s success.

“I also recognize in the same breath that in order to get such a complicated project approved, there have to be robust and stringent and independent environmental reviews,” LeBlanc said.

“And there has to be a much more concerted effort on the part of the government of Canada — and to be honest the company and the provincial governments, I think have recognized this — but the federal government was pretty absent, in terms of working with communities and First Nations and trying to build understanding, information and support around a process of review that is credible and independent.”

If all of this comes to pass, then Northern Gateway is consigned to the dustbin of history and both the Kinder Morgan TransMountain expansion and TransCanada's Energy East pipeline will start their reviews again under new tougher regulations. Environmentalists, however, are sensibly skeptical— especially about the Liberals apparent dissonance between acting on climate while growing the fossil fuel sector.

Obama has sent a clear message that you can’t be a climate leader and build pipelines, a message that Prime Minister Trudeau cannot ignore,” Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director for Sierra Club BC, said.

Karen Mahon, executive director of ForestEthics Advocacy, echoed the sentiment.

This rejection sets an important precedent in the run up to the Paris climate talks that we hope Prime Minister Trudeau will take to heart — we cannot protect the climate and approve more pipelines and expand the tar sands. Approving pipelines while claiming climate leadership is clear contradiction,” Mahon said.

“To Change Everything, We Need Everyone”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is less than a week into the most important job of his life. Like President Obama, he came into it on the heels of an extremely unpopular predecessor. He promised hope, change and a different way of governing. He has an extremely ambitious agenda which will require reaching out to industry, business, other politicians and environmentalists and getting them to work together to be successful. And he needs to do it all in with the legacy of his father's 'National Energy Plan' looming over his head for a still-angry subset of western Canadians. 

Trudeau’s response today may signal a conciliatory posture towards the pipeline industry and a sign that campaign promises are little more than hot air. Or it can also be seen as a first measured response to the complex political challenge ahead of him.

For the moment, the majority of Canadians seem content to believe the latter. 

Image: Flickr