Opinion: Justin Trudeau tries to have it both ways on economy, environment

At his recent Greater Vancouver Board of Trade appearance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau downplayed the consequences of continuing to develop fossil fuels

At his recent Greater Vancouver Board of Trade appearance, the prime minister downplayed the consequences of continuing to develop fossil fuels

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a stab at that during his recent address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT). To put it less charitably—and to paraphrase his predecessor Jean Chrétien—he appeared to be talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Trudeau began his remarks at the Vancouver Convention Centre by reminding the crowd that he’s spent plenty of time in B.C.—visiting his grandparents in West Vancouver, camping on Vancouver Island, teaching in Lower Mainland schools and so on.

“Every time I get to come back here, I feel at home,” he said. “But I also feel like I’m getting a glimpse into our future as a country. You’ve got cities and towns with fresh ideas across the province, businesses building prosperity for the middle class by reaching customers half a world away and communities doing their part to keep our coasts healthy. There’s no doubt B.C. is ahead of the curve, and that’s no coincidence, thanks to leaders like you.”

The prime minister touted the three international trade deals his government has negotiated: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the new United States–Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“We’re the only G7 country with preferential access to European, Asia-Pacific and North American markets,” said Trudeau, who described B.C. as the Asia-Canada hub for trade and business. “Simply put, we’re the only G7 country with a free trade deal with every other G7 country. That’s a recipe for success.”

The path to clean growth?

Trudeau then moved on to the LNG Canada consortium’s recently announced $40-billion liquified natural gas facility in Kitimat, calling it the largest single private sector investment in Canadian history and a vote of confidence in the national economy.

“LNG puts us on the path to clean growth, LNG producing half the carbon emissions of coal, coal that Canadian LNG will be displacing and replacing across Asian markets,” he said. “We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and healthy air. We can build projects that are win-win, projects that attract massive global investment and create jobs, while also taking action on climate change and protecting the environment.”

The PM couldn’t resist a dig at the leader of the federal Conservative Party. “Unfortunately, there are still those who ignore the threat of climate change and are oblivious to the huge potential of a clean-growth economy,” he said. “Andrew Scheer still doesn’t have a plan to support Canadians in the economy of today while protecting the environment for tomorrow. He’d rather leave us stuck in the past while this new, exciting economy passes us right by.”

Trudeau’s comments implied that developing Canada’s oil and natural gas resources and taking steps to combat climate change will be a wash, not a trade-off. Fossil fuels are important to our economy—just ask Alberta Premier Rachel Notley—but the leader of the country should be honest with Canadians about the environmental fallout from exploiting them.

The prime minister must know about the recent special report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns that the world only has until 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By then, we must reduce carbon emissions to 45 percent below 2010 levels, the IPCC projects, before moving to net zero by 2050. That means swiftly and dramatically cutting back on fossil fuel use in favour of renewable energy. Switching from coal to LNG will help, but Canada will still be contributing to an urgent problem.

A shot in the arm

During the question-and-answer session that followed Trudeau’s speech, GVBOT president and CEO Iain Black praised the LNG Canada announcement as “a really good shot in the arm” for the business community. “What do you think the federal government can do next with respect to reinforcing or restoring the narrative that this is a great place in which to invest?” Black asked.

“One of the reasons we’re very much behind this project is because for us, it’s a demonstration that things can be done if they’re done the right way,” Trudeau said of LNG Canada. “The way to get big projects built isn’t to quash environmental voices or further marginalize Indigenous communities that might be opposed to it, but to bring them in, to listen to their concerns, to work with them as you move forward to try and, if you can, reach consensus. If not, at least demonstrate that you are listening and responding to their specific concerns.”

Black asked Trudeau what’s next for the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, which Ottawa strongly backs, having bought the existing oil pipeline and the stalled expansion project this year from the Canadian division of Texan energy giant Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion. Unlike LNG Canada, the expansion would only boost carbon emissions.

“I will admit that the federal court decision was really frustrating,” Trudeau said, referring to the Federal Court of Appeal’s August ruling that shut down the expansion for failing to properly address First Nations and environmental concerns. Ottawa responded by giving the National Energy Board just 22 weeks to do a new environmental review.

When his government took power in 2015, Trudeau said, it set out to strengthen oversight of existing pipeline projects. “Northern Gateway we cancelled because the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a crude-oil pipeline,” Trudeau said. “We knew that we had to strengthen the environmental oversight and we needed to do a better job of working with Indigenous communities specifically. And we did.”

As Trudeau conceded, that wasn’t good enough for Federal Court of Appeal. “What the court is actually doing is laying out with more clarity the path to get big projects approved,” he said. “And surprise, surprise, like LNG Canada, it means being thoughtful in your partnership with Indigenous peoples, and it means getting the environmental science right.”

Lines on a map

Trudeau and federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau have made it clear that whether British Columbians like it or not, they’re getting the Trans Mountain expansion, which would triple the capacity of the existing pipeline and result in almost seven times as many oil tankers carrying Alberta bitumen from Burnaby along the B.C. coast.

Trudeau’s assurances won’t sit well with the many people who oppose the project. Among them are Premier John Horgan, and Kennedy Stewart and Mike Hurley, the new mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, respectively. Then there’s Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, who last month said that the Trans Mountain expansion “has always been a real stinker from the very beginning.”

When asked about the federal government’s role in helping improve rapid-transit and other infrastructure in the Vancouver area, Trudeau adopted a very different tone than the one his government has taken with Trans Mountain. “Ottawa shouldn’t be deciding for you what it is that the Lower Mainland needs,” he said. “We need to be there as a partner for your priorities.”

The prime minister noted that his government has worked with mayors and the province to identify infrastructure projects that matter to B.C. residents, setting aside $2.7 billion for investments. “We trust the people of British Columbia to figure out what the best way to do that is,” he said. “It’s not up to the politicians in Ottawa to draw lines on a map; it’s up to the local people who know what the best things are.”

For anyone who believes Metro Vancouver is no place for an even bigger crude-oil pipeline, it doesn’t take a first-rate intelligence to spot the double standard.