SULLIVAN: North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson a fascinating figure in pipeline politics

Well, so much for the power of the bully pulpit. Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline kicked off Tuesday in Edmonton despite my ongoing opposition.

But never mind me. It’s underway even though six Indigenous groups are appealing the decision to proceed in federal court, citing flaws in the consultation process with the federal government. And an outfit called Ecojustice (formerly the Sierra Legal Defense Fund) is asking the Supreme Court to stop the project and save the whales, specifically the 73 remaining southern resident killer whales, from the potential impact of the pipeline.

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Apparently this formidable force is no match for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s bigmouth threats to secede from the federation unless the pipeline gets built and pronto.

So the powers that be staged a groundbreaking Tuesday, which was more than a little ceremonial, as work really began months ago, not long after the feds approved the project for the second time. (Ottawa seems determined to build even though it gets no love from Alberta. Maybe Canada is a masochist? Can an entire nation suffer a psychological disorder? A topic for another day.)

Anyway, Alberta and Ottawa put aside their differences, put on their ceremonial hard hats, dug into the frozen Alberta tundra, and declared the project underway. New Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan joined Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage in a rare display of co-operative digging, but Jonathan Wilkinson, the pride of North Vancouver and Canada’s new environment minister didn’t make an appearance. I assume he was anywhere else.

Wilkinson is a fascinating and pivotal figure in this great saga. I often think if anyone should run this country, it’s Jonathan Wilkinson, maybe with Chrystia Freeland running shotgun. Or Chrystia can run the country and Jonathan can run shotgun. It’s immaterial. They’re smart enough to figure it out.  

Wilkinson is so smart that he’s been able to figure out how to square his deeply held environmental convictions with the construction of the pipeline. I sat down with him before the election – when he was still a mere fisheries minister – and got schooled on his theory that the Trans Mountain pipeline, which will haul nearly 900,000 barrels of oil sands goo a day across the Rockies to Burnaby and the Burrard Inlet (i.e. down the street from here), is good for the environment.

Wilkinson makes a persuasive case for the pipeline: Trans Mountain will have to adhere to a detailed list of 156 required conditions, and the feds have added the security of the $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan. And the pipeline will put $500 million annual federal revenue into the treasury to be spent on clean energy projects and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet Ottawa’s commitment to fight global warming.

In the inimitable words of our new environment minister: “We are delineating a long-term strategy that will get us to net zero.”

No one ever said eloquence is Jonathan’s strong suit, but he’s very convincing. And I am almost convinced.

If it weren’t for the nightmare that goes with an accidental spill or a fire, I’d be out there with my own funny little hard hat and shovel.

Friends and relations and federal environment ministers keep telling me to listen to the evidence and good sense coming from the project’s supporters. Basically, stop worrying and learn to love the pipeline.

But what do we do about the ongoing concerns of the aforementioned Indigenous groups, including the Squamish and Tseil-Waututh Nations? Or Ecojustice? A few months ago, an outfit called Stand.earth (formerly ForestEthics … not sure all this eco-rebranding is a good idea) issued a grim report, contending that the risk of a catastrophic fire or oil spill has not diminished.

Whenever I cite these apocalyptic texts, the above-mentioned friends, etc. roll their eyes and talk about all the money and safeguards expended so it doesn’t happen. Or consider the source. OK, the source is a group of unfortunately named people who care for the environment.

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Arguably, it’s a much tougher job to reconcile a fossil fuel pipeline with the protection of the environment. But the federal government has made its bet – $4.5 billion to buy the pipeline in its pre-expanded state. Then they have to build it. The whole thing could be closer to $10, even $12 billion.

But the die is cast. It’s the economy over the environment … and if you’re Jonathan Wilkinson and the Trudeau government, it’s both. A win-win. Now all they need is a little respect from Jason Kenney and it’s a trifecta.

Good luck with that.

p.sullivan@breakthroughpr.com

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