Opinion | Time for Trudeau to take national energy infrastructure seriously

The federal government needs to seriously rediscover the legacy of Louis St. Laurent if it is to meet our national energy infrastructure needs.

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By Joseph Quesnel

The Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent – the second Francophone prime minister in our history – was known for its assertiveness and determination to build national infrastructure in post-Second World War Canada. St. Laurent oversaw the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Trans-Canada Pipeline.

Yes, a Liberal government championed a pipeline. It is hard to imagine with the current federal government and this prime minister. No government in recent memory has created such a hostile policy environment towards the building of oil and natural gas pipelines. The rhetoric of “Just Transition” shows a government that is committed to keeping resources in the ground. That hardly befits a government with a history of boldly creating the country’s longest natural gas pipeline from Western Canada to the East.

All of this is misguided given Canada’s minuscule contribution to carbon emissions and the uselessness of policies that will not reduce global demand for fossil fuels, especially from developing countries that need to catch up to our standard of living. Countries with dirtier sources of energy will only step up and meet their needs.

The federal government’s head was turned briefly with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its revelation of how dependent Europe was on Russian natural gas. Ottawa briefly recognized that Canada could provide clean and reliable natural gas to these countries. However, it did not take long for the government to turn back to its climate change talking points.

With the threat of stagflation driven in part by higher energy prices, Canada must step up to the plate and become a major supplier of oil and natural gas to the world. Canada’s economic and foreign policy objectives demand it. This government needs to abandon this misguided means to address climate change and become a champion for national energy infrastructure. This government needs a Louis St. Laurent right now.

Natural gas export facilities take a while to build, but Atlantic Canada already has a natural gas capacity that can be retrofitted for export. With the premature death of Energy East, many lost hope the East Coast could become a major export hub, but the Russian invasion underscored the importance of Canada supplying energy to Europe and beyond. The federal government must champion natural gas exports from Atlantic Canada.

Quebec’s resistance to energy infrastructure should be tackled head-on. A government inspired by the spirit of St. Laurent would not be timid. The first part is to recognize that anti-energy opinion is really a vocal minority.

Polls have consistently revealed majorities in favour of Western oil and producing local natural gas. Governments in Quebec seem to be more motivated by appeasing urban environmentalists largely based in Montreal than listening to the silent majority.

The federal government – with its role in protecting inter-provincial infrastructure –needs to cut between this elite-driven noise and make the case for natural gas development and national pipelines directly to Quebecers. The federal government needs to put to rest this false idea of “social licence” and “social acceptability” some provinces trot out to undermine nationally important projects.

We need a government in Ottawa that puts national interests – as clearly defined in the constitution – ahead of concerns over short-term political gain.

Defining the national energy interests does not mean Ottawa will not work with the provinces and territories. Canada is still defined by a spirit of co-operative federalism. Our courts have recognized that other levels of government can pass legislation – usually to do with environmental regulation or land use – that can impact energy projects, but they cannot deliberately pass laws or bylaws that seek to “frustrate” the purposes of a federal law. Without too much legalese, court rulings have been clear that federal law must prevail when levels conflict.

Ottawa must work with the provinces, but on the issue of national energy infrastructure, this federal government has allowed provinces to ignore Ottawa’s central position. Ottawa must reclaim its role.

Ottawa must treat national pipelines in the east the same way it did with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. It is a national priority deserving federal support.

In 2018, Alberta Senator Douglas Black introduced legislation to declare Trans Mountain in the national interest. This involved regulations that would protect the project from illegal disruptions. This government allowed that bill to die in the House of Commons.

A government truly channelling the spirit of Louis St. Laurent and C.D. Howe would not be afraid to invoke such legislation on inter-provincial pipeline projects all over Canada, as well as important natural gas export capacity.

Time for this government to seize this historic moment.

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