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When Jason Kenney kills Alberta's carbon tax and emissions cap, what will Justin do?

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigning in Edmonton in October 2015. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

When it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds himself on the proverbial horns of a dilemma.

There are serious political consequences for his Liberal federal government if he now allows the project to proceed. There are likewise serious political consequences if he doesn't.

Thanks to the work done by outgoing Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, a New Democrat, support for the TMX in Canada has probably reached its high-water mark. It has nowhere to go but down.

Thanks to the loss by Notley's NDP government of the April 16 Alberta election to the United Conservative Party led by Jason Kenney, support for the TMX outside the Prairie provinces is almost certain to fall.

This is because Kenney, a former senior cabinet minister in the petrostatic Conservative federal government of Stephen Harper, has made it clear he will immediately repeal Alberta's carbon tax, lift the cap on oilsands carbon emissions and return to the Harper government's strategy of belligerent bullying of Canadians who have their doubts about converting the country into a petro-state, especially now.

What Will Justin Do? (WWJD?)

Back on November 29, 2016, when a confident Trudeau announced the approval of the TMX and two other large energy infrastructure projects, he reminded Canadians that during the previous year's election campaign, "we said that major pipelines could only get built if we had a price on carbon and strong environmental protection in place."

"Aside from the many and obvious economic benefits, we approved this project because it meets the strictest of environmental standards and fits within our national climate plan," he said at that news conference.

"And let me say this definitely. 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. We want to be clear on this point because it is important and sometimes not well understood." (Emphasis added.)

"Alberta's climate plan is a vital contributor to our national strategy. It has been rightly celebrated as a major step forward both by industry and by the environmental community," Trudeau continued. "The Alberta plan provides a cap on emissions from oilsands over the mid-term, but allows for production to increase from present levels."

In five days, Kenney will be sworn in an premier of Alberta and his first act, he has vowed, will be to tear up Alberta's climate leadership plan, specifically the carbon tax and the oilsands emissions cap.

As has been predicted in this space, Kenney's belligerent brand of TMX advocacy is likely to send fence-sitting British Columbians back to the anti-pipeline camp. It already seems to have had that effect in Quebec.

If Trudeau hopes to retain or increase seats in B.C. or Quebec, he will need to stand up to Kenney's bluster -- which the prime minister understands very well is part of a Republican-style co-ordinated national campaign by the Conservative Party and its provincial chapters to box him on the economy.

He surely also understands that if he fails to move forward on the TMX program he will look like a prat for having spent $4.5 billion of our collective money to buy the existing line from Kinder Morgan of Houston, Texas, only to pull the plug on it.  But no matter what he does, there are very few votes in Alberta for him.

It doesn't help that the business case for more pipelines is a shaky one, which is why Kinder Morgan got the heck outta Dodge when it found a likely buyer for its depreciating 60-year-old asset.

It's very hard to predict what the Liberals will do about this in the long run, but it's obvious that their first instinct -- and probably the right one in the political vise they now find themselves -- will be to sniff the wind.

Last Thursday, federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi -- an Edmonton MP whose re-election in the fall is, shall we say, problematic -- announced Ottawa was extending its own deadline for a decision to approve the TMX from mid-May to June 18 to allow more time for consultations with First Nations as required by the courts.

Inquiring minds wondered at the time if that was a shot across the bow of the new Alberta government. Trudeau owes Kenney no favours.

Kenney understands this, presumably, and took a conciliatory tone in his response, although with a little bit of spin on it.

"I agreed with the prime minister that they need to make sure that they cross every t and dot every i when it comes to discharging the federal government's duty to consult," he told an impromptu news conference at Government House in Edmonton, where he had been discussing the transition with outgoing Premier Notley. "We certainly don't want them to have to go back to the drawing board a third time on this."

"We will continue on our part to build an alliance across the country that supports TMX and other pipelines," he said. "We will continue to communicate the urgency of this to all Canadians."

Well, no doubt he will try.

If the federal government decides to allow the project to proceed -- perhaps with some First Nations ownership -- that will expose Trudeau's environmental posturing in 2015 and 2016 as an outright fraud.

If he doesn't, at the very least he will stand accused of having made an extremely bad investment in a white elephant pipeline.

Yesterday, Sohi said Ottawa can't guarantee there will be a decision on the TMX before the next election, although he added that there probably will be.

"Each province is expected to have their own climate change plan in place and the cap on emissions from oilsands development is part of that plan and we look forward to working with the new government to understand how they will continue to either support that plan or have a new plan," Sohi told reporters after a clean-energy announcement in Calgary.

"We understand the amount of emissions that are generated in Alberta are significant," he added. D'ya think?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post is also found on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga​

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