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John Ivison: Trudeau itching for a fight if Jason Kenney overturns pledge to cap oilsands emissions

John Ivison: Trudeau itching for a fight if Jason Kenney overturns pledge to cap oilsands emissions
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Sources suggest the Trudeau government is actively considering the idea of blocking the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which the federal government owns, if Kenney’s Alberta government overturns a pledge by its predecessor to cap carbon emissions from the oilsands at 100 megatons a year.

The logic is that if there is no climate change plan, there can be no more pipelines – a commitment that would likely play well in British Columbia and Quebec, where the Liberals believe they can pick up seats in the October election.

The idea was raised by former Liberal national director, Jamie Carroll, in a blog post this week – and dismissed by a columnist not unadjacent to this one as “incoherent”.

Even Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said the idea that the Liberals do not want to build TMX is “an absurd proposition”.

But Carroll appears to have picked up on real discussions being held in the circle around the prime minister.

Absurd or not, it is apparent there is an active lobby in the Prime Minister’s Office in favour of campaigning hard against Kenney and other Conservatives decrying the Liberal government’s climate action plan.

Trudeau indicated the shape of things to come in a speech Thursday, where he lambasted federal and provincial Conservatives for “denying climate change is real,” while spending taxpayers’ money to fight Ottawa in court over the imposition of the federal carbon tax backstop. Trudeau said the move was “short-sighted, irresponsible and Canadians deserve better”.

For his part, Kenney is in conciliatory mood. As one senior source close to the premier-designate said: “There is no mention of an emissions cap in the UCP platform one way or another. The platform is silent.”

It may well be. But Kenney campaigned on unwinding Notley’s climate change plan, including the emissions cap.

We will get a better idea of how peaceable or otherwise Kenney is prepared to be when he appears before the Senate transport committee, which is traveling to Edmonton next Tuesday for hearings into C48, the oil tanker ban legislation. Notley testified before the same committee earlier this month and urged the bill be “tossed into the garbage”. Kenney is unlikely to be any more complimentary.

The premier and prime minister look destined to collide.

But, if it’s clear the prime minister plans to beat the Conservatives with the cudgel of climate change, failing to pursue the expansion of Trans Mountain, after spending $4.5-billion of taxpayers’ money to buy the existing asset, would be a massive U-turn for Trudeau.

As recently as January, he said that diversifying Canada’s oil markets by building a pipeline to the ocean is an “absolute priority”.

Still, the risks would be enormous.

For one thing, the fight would be totally contrived. The carbon emissions cap was not scheduled to kick in until 2030 and oilsands emissions, at around 70 megatons a year, are well short of the proposed limit.

For another, the move would send many Albertans into a state of apoplexy. While Trudeau may feel he has nothing to lose with voters in the province, does he really want to poke the bear of Western alienation and perhaps spark a national unity crisis?

The premier and prime minister look destined to collide

Then there is the reaction in the rest of Canada. An Ipsos poll last year suggested 56 per cent of respondents across the country support the TMX expansion, with a clear majority backing it even in B.C. How would these voters react to a government that sacrifices economic growth on the nebulous grounds of a cap on emissions that is not set to kick in for another 11 years?

What is clear is that the Liberals are itching for a scrap with Kenney. They have already indicated that if he repeals the emissions cap, they will regulate Alberta’s in-situ oil industry, which injects steam into deeper bitumen deposits to bring them to the surface. The in-situ industry is currently regulated by the Alberta Energy Regulator but Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said this week that they would fall under the contentious federal assessment bill, C69, if the cap is repealed.

It would be one thing bringing the oilsands under federal control; quite another to betray the commitment to build a pipeline that has already cost Canadians billions of dollars.

But politicians called Trudeau have proven themselves flexible in the past. In the 1974 election, the prime minister’s father mocked Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield’s proposal of a wage and price freeze to fight inflation with the put-down: “Zap! You’re frozen.” A year later, Trudeau brought in his own wage and price control system.

It never pays to take too literally the word of an expedient politician looking for a boost in the opinion polls.

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