MONTREAL — In the face of mounting Quebec opposition to the Energy East pipeline, the TransCanada plan to link the oilfields of Western Canada to the refineries of the Atlantic region is not officially dead but it is, at best, on life support.
On paper, no mayor including Denis Coderre, the former Liberal minister who currently runs Montreal, has the power to block a pipeline. Nor can a province veto the project. The final word on national infrastructure undertakings rests with the federal government.
But in the real world, the latest developments have turned a challenging issue for Justin Trudeau’s government into a highly toxic one.
When Coderre formally announced his city’s opposition to the TransCanada pipeline, he was acting as the spokesperson for 81 other Montreal-area mayors. Together they represent more than half of all Quebecers. Their region is also home to the greatest concentration of Liberal voters in Quebec.
Before Thursday’s municipal news conference, the sovereigntist parties dominated the anti-pipeline barricades in Quebec. The Bloc Québécois campaigned hard against it in last fall’s federal election.
With Coderre’s announcement, a sizeable federalist contingent has now joined the fight.
An immediate collateral result is to make the TransCanada plan one of the stakes in the larger Quebec debate over the province’s command of its affairs.
In the pipeline project, the sovereigntist movement has found an issue that stands to test the limits of Quebec’s autonomy within the federation and — in the event of a Quebec-Ottawa collision — rekindle support for its independence project.
Couillard, like Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, has been sitting on the fence on the Energy East pipeline. Both governments presented TransCanada with a list of conditions the company would have to meet to secure their support.
As of this week that fence has become distinctively less comfortable. In the face of a wall of municipal objections, one can only wonder how much political capital Couillard will want to expend on a project that ultimately offers the province few direct economic benefits.
The incentives for Wynne to champion the pipeline are also few. Last summer the province’s energy watchdog concluded the pipeline’s risks outweigh its benefits to Ontario.
And then, in opposition, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians that under a Liberal government no pipeline project would see the light of day in the absence of what he called a social licence.
Trudeau never defined the terms of such a licence but he did offer a marker. In his book, Northern Gateway, the pipeline project designed to link Alberta’s oilfields to the coast of British Columbia, has failed to secure enough local, environmental and aboriginal support to make the cut.
By the time he lands back from Davos, Switzerland, the prime minister — even if he puts on the rose-tinted glasses he so loves — will be hard-pressed to spot a glimmer of hope that TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline will ever fare better in his home province.
He will also find himself in the crossfire of an interprovincial war of words that has already escalated at a precipitous pace, in no small part thanks to the social media.
Within hours of the Coderre news conference, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall tweeted that Montreal should hand back the equalization money it has been receiving, part of which comes from wealth generated by Western Canada’s oil and gas industries.
Never one to shy from a fight — especially at a safe social media distance — Coderre replied that he and his colleagues speak for four times more people than the premier of Saskatchewan, and that their taxes contribute to fund the federal infrastructures of the Prairie province.
Add to this already explosive mix the concerns of the pro-pipeline government of New Brunswick, a province that gave Trudeau all of its seats last fall and whose Liberal premier is a close ally, and you have a unity minefield.
The backers of the Energy East project have always believed — and in this they are not alone — that if only one pipeline was going to see the light of day in Canada it would be the TransCanada one. That is still true.
What has not panned out is their Pollyannaish strategy of selling the plan for an oil pipeline as a nation-building project — liable to bring the country together in the way that the railroad did in the 19th century.