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NEB ruling on Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion leaves everyone deep in their message boxes

Common sense would suggest the recommendation of the National Energy Board yesterday that Ottawa approve the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project despite significant risks to the environment is a small but significant step toward eventual completion of the controversial multi-billion-dollar megaproject.

But as was already evident in the immediate reaction to the NEB’s announcement in Calgary, that isn’t likely to drive the interested parties out of their message boxes any time soon. Consider this sampling from various news sources:

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley was optimistic, but cautious. "It's not a victory, but it's an incredibly important step," she told reporters. "Many obstacles have been put in our way, and quite clearly we are not done yet."

United Conservative Party Opposition Leader Jason Kenney said that the decision "doesn't change anything." He complained about the NEB's addition of 16 non-binding recommendations and blamed the NDP, the federal Liberals, the B.C. Government and "U.S. funded" environmentalists for delaying the project.

B.C. NDP Environment Minister George Heyman expressed astonishment that "they found there would be significant impacts on southern resident killer whales, that there would be a catastrophic impact if there was a spill, and they reached the conclusion, astoundingly, that no new conditions were needed."

"We'll do whatever it takes to protect the things that we love, because no price can be put on the sacred," said Rueben George of the Tsleil Waututh First Nation, one of the parties to the original legal challenge that resulted in the NEB’s first permit being quashed.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, an Edmonton MP, cautiously indicated a final decision won’t be made by cabinet until consultations with impacted First Nations have been completed.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Expect more of the same starting today, only louder.

Notley's supporters will argue the NEB recommendation would not have been made without her efforts to seek social license through her government's climate leadership program, including its carbon levy. "Notley's diplomacy has delivered results," said Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan in a Tweet. "Kenney’s phoney machismo is risky."

Kenney's supporters will say the recommendations and the NEB's acknowledgement the project carries risks of "serious adverse environmental impacts" are proof the social license approach is a failure. Some will darkly grumble that anything short of shovels in the ground by morning and a statement global climate change is a fraud proves there is a malicious conspiracy against Alberta.

Kenney and his federal counterpart, Andrew Scheer, won't quite endorse such opinions -- but they won't discourage them either.

Some environmentalists and First Nations opponents of the pipeline will see the process as rigged in favour of TMX and its recommendations dangerously toothless. Like Heyman, they will vow to fight on in the courts of law and of public opinion.

And the federal Liberals led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will proceed with extreme caution, dotting their i's and crossing their t's in the consultations with First Nations demanded by the Federal Court of Appeal.

After all, they know that the huge amount of political and actual capital they have invested in the TMX Project has bought them nothing but hostility and abuse from almost all parties in Alberta while threatening their electoral support in other parts of the country.

That was all well and good, once upon a time, when their reelection in the fall seemed assured. Now? Not so much.

Facing a political crisis wrought by the SNC-Lavalin affair, it seems highly unlikely Trudeau's Liberals will risk anything more in the face of the strong possibility of zero benefit anywhere from co-operation with Alberta.

Moreover, as University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach pointed out in an interesting series of Tweets yesterday, the possibility of a victory by Kenney in the imminent Alberta provincial election puts Trudeau in a position where continuing to support the pipeline is dangerous for him.

Trudeau sold Ottawa's purchase of the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline and its support for the expansion project, Leach pointed out, on the strength of Notley's practical efforts to build social license.

Leach reminded his readers of the PM's words back in the day: "We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley, and Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan -- a plan that commits to pricing carbon and capping oilsands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year."

Leach asked: "What's Justin Trudeau going to do if, by the time cabinet gets through the required consultations with First Nations communities, Alberta no longer has a carbon pricing policy as it did in 2015? The oil sands cap also remains to be formalized and seems unlikely to be so now."

It's an interesting question. The answer in the short term is that the prime minister will almost certainly proceed with extreme caution, at least until the federal election, and possibly until after the U.S. presidential election in the fall of 2020 as well.

If everyone continues to act as expected in the face of that, and the emerging Liberal electoral strategy unfolds as doubtless planned, it could leave forever furious Alberta the victim of its own tantrums.

"For 'tis the sport to have the enginer," as the Bard observed, "hoist with his own petard … "

Alas poor Stephen, I knew Mandel

Having metaphorically tied his shoelaces together, then fallen down, Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel's lawyers yesterday pleaded with a judge of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench to untangle the knot and send him on his way.

That is to say, having missed deadlines for filing required financial paperwork on his and other MLAs' candidate nomination elections, knowing full well the penalty was being banned from running for five years, he missed them anyway, was banned from running until the fall of 2023 by Elections Alberta, and now wants the ban overturned.

If the bans on Mandel and six other candidates aren't lifted, his lawyers argued, the Alberta Party could be done like dinner. Even if they are, there's a strong chance it will be anyway.

Mandel described his case as "very strong." Others seem to think it's very weak. Regardless, the judge, Madam Justice Gaylene Kendell, said she will make her decision by the end of next week.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Premierofalberta/Flickr

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