The 2019 federal election has given Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, a golden opportunity. To be sure, the party’s caucus was reduced to a band of 24, but a strong campaign by Singh staved off an even harsher fate that had loomed in the earlier polls. And in a minority government situation, Singh is in a pivotal position to influence the direction of the next Liberal government.
Singh has already declared his priorities, excellent progressive ideas like including prescription drugs in public medical insurance, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and climate action.
But what kind of climate action? With one single pro-climate act, Singh could show a firm commitment to a fundamental plank in the NDP’s platform — to end subsidies to fossil fuels. With the same stroke, he could enact his welcome declared opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (TMX), and also represent his constituents in Burnaby, the coastal B.C. city that disproportionately bears the brunt of TMX’s potentially devastating environmental risks (including pipeline ruptures, tank farm explosions, and super-tanker collisions). That act is to pledge to vote against any speech from the throne that proposes completion of TMX, and any federal budget that includes public funding for that project.
While Trudeau and the fossil fuel lobby have done everything possible to make TMX seem inevitable, it is not. It cannot proceed without an injection of at least $9 billion and probably much more in public funds for construction and liability insurance. Major challenges from First Nations are before the courts. And if a sober look at the business case for TMX could supplant its role as a political symbol, its economic risks would become more evident. Independent analysts like Robyn Allan and David Hughes have argued compellingly that there is no large Asian demand for Alberta’s bitumen, TMX will not hugely increase its per-barrel price, relatively few permanent jobs will be created, competing delivery routes will be online soon, and the existing capacity of Canadian pipelines could be used more efficiently.
The cancellation of TMX could save Canadian taxpayers from spending billions on a white elephant.
And if by chance TMX does help expand Alberta bitumen sands production, it will shred Canada’s shrinking reputation as a climate leader, and our chances of meeting our Paris climate accord commitments.
It’s still not clear why Trudeau nationalized the pipeline and committed so much tax-derived capital to it. It seems that it was more about saving his political capital — in particular, a deal with the previous Alberta government of Rachel Notley to accept a carbon tax and a (very high) ceiling on bitumen sands emissions, in exchange for completing TMX. With Notley’s defeat by Jason Kenney’s rabidly (and almost comically) pro-fossil fuel United Conservative Party earlier this year, that deal is now, shall we say, rendered nugatory.
And yet Trudeau doubled down on TMX. Why? Probably it’s about saving political face. The Liberal hype about using (hypothetical) revenues from the sands to finance renewable energy (maybe, eventually, who knows), is a monumental case of greenwashing. It’s like selling heroin to fund a rehab program. The science is pretty clear: without a magical techno-fix through massive carbon recapture, most fossil fuels — particularly extreme carbon like bitumen — need to stay in the ground.
Of course, there are political risks in voting nay to more TMX funding. Trudeau knows that burdened by debt, the federal NDP does not want another election any time soon. And Singh would likely face a barrage of vitriol from a mainly pro-extractivist corporate press, particularly the Postmedia newspaper chain. Canada’s “mainstream” media have too often failed to facilitate the kind of mature debate on fundamentals needed in a context of planetary emergency.
But there are gains for the longer term, too. By opposing TMX and committing to the broad outlines of a Green New Deal, the NDP could avoid being outflanked by the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois on an issue that is now top-of-mind for millions of Canadians. It would reflect the breadth of opposition to tax-subsidized pipelines, and force the governing Liberals to rely on the Conservatives to approve funding for TMX — a useful lesson for people who still see the Liberals as progressive on climate. The NDP could advance a distinct vision of Canada, combining a commitment to social justice and collective well-being, with a determination to escape the traps of an extractivist economy. Those traps include the “Dutch disease” — the oil-driven escalation of the loonie’s exchange rate, to the detriment of other economic sectors like manufacturing and tourism. Over-dependence on fossil fuel royalties also encourages a rent-collecting mentality at the expense of innovation and diversification in the broader economy.
Not that Alberta, as Canada’s prime oil-producing region, has been terribly good at collecting resource royalties. After a promising start under Peter Lougheed in the 1970s, subsequent Albertan governments have essentially allowed Big Oil to write its own public policy, as Albertan author Kevin Taft argues in Oil’s Deep State. The result? A failure to diversify the provincial economy, and a heritage fund that is less than 2 per cent of Norway’s trillion-dollar piggy bank from similar-sized oil resources. Alberta’s economic woes have more to do with bad policy than a shortage of pipelines.
On the other hand, Alberta has contributed its share of regional equalization payments over the years. And a just transition to a low-carbon economy means that resource-dependent regions and workers should not disproportionately bear the costs. The hundreds of thousands of jobs that the NDP called for through shifting public investment and subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, should prioritize sun-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan. That should be the trade-off for a managed phase-out of the sands’ extreme carbon.
In the context of global heating, Jagmeet Singh could help modernize social democracy — a renewal it badly requires — and pave the way for a new progressive coalition in Canada. The combined support for the NDP, Greens and other progressive forces totals at least one-quarter of the Canadian electorate. That’s enough to prevent either the Conservatives or the Liberals (whose track record is to campaign from the left but govern from the right) from forming a single-party majority with a minority of the vote — even in our antiquated first-past-the-post system.
Now is the time to insist that the federal NDP accept a historic role in freezing fossil fuel infrastructure expansion and helping to kickstart the new economy that we desperately need.
After all, there’s no pharmacare on a dead planet.
Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE).
Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook