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Do Liberal Contradictions on the Environment Pave way for Conservative win in 2019?

Published in The Conversation, The National Post, May 22, 2019

A few weeks ago, I was invited attended speech by federal environment and climate change minister Catherine Mckenna in Toronto on climate change and a number of other environmental issues. The minister delivered an powerful and heartfelt address, highlighting both the Liberal government’s and her own personal commitment to meeting the environmental challenges facing Canada. The speech garnered [positive responses]( from the media in attendance.

For myself, and for many in the room however, the most dramatic moment of the event occurred at its end. Although no questions were invited, a visibly nervous young woman stood up and challenged the minister on the government’s environmental record, particularly its purchase and ongoing support of the expansion of the Alberta to British Columbia Trans Mountain pipeline. To her credit minister McKenna engaged with her questioner, and followed up with a more private conversation. Yet the moment seemed to me to highlight challenges that Liberal government has set itself up for over environmental issues leading into the October 2019 federal election.

On the one hand, the government has established a relatively strong record of action on environmental issues. Most notable has been its determination to carry forward with its [carbon pricing initiative](, the centrepiece of its overall plan to meet Canada’s greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments under the 2015 [Paris Climate Accord]( This has been despite vociferous opposition from newly elected [conservative provincial governments]( in Ontario and Alberta, as well as ongoing challenges from Saskatchewan and others. The government has also advanced the dates for a national [phase-out]( of coal-fired electricity generation, is moving forward with proposals for [low-carbon fuel standards](, among other things.

On the other hand, the government has been surprisingly aggressive in its pursuit of new infrastructure intended facilitate increased exports of fossil fuels, and by implication, expansions of the carbon-intensive production of bitumen from the oil sands. Such increases will make it [difficult, if not impossible](, for Canada to meet its Paris commitments. Although rejecting the Alberta to BC Northern Gateway pipeline, the government has let the approval of the Canadian portion of the Keystone XL pipeline to the US stand, along with approving the expansion of the Alberta to Wisconsin Line 3 pipeline, and most controversially, the [twinning]( of Edmonton to Vancouver Trans Mountain pipeline. The federal government then [purchased]( the pipeline for $4.5 billion to ensure its construction.

The federal approval of the Trans Mountain project was [rejected]( by the Federal Court of Appeal in August 2018. The court's decision was grounded on the basis of inadequate consultations with the affected indigenous peoples, and the National Energy Board’s failure to consider properly the impacts of increased tanker traffic flowing from the project on marine wildlife. The NEB’s subsequent [reconsideration]( of the environmental dimensions of the project acknowledged major risks, particularly to the endangered southern resident [Orca population]( of the Salish Sea, but recommended, on the basis of the anticipated economic benefits, that the project proceed anyway. The government has signalled its intention to make a [final decision]( on the project by the middle of June. An [approval]( is widely expected, along with further legal challenges from Indigenous peoples, affected municipalities and environmental organizations.

The Liberals’ electoral success in 2015 rode to a considerable degree on their ability to consolidate centrist and progressive voters behind Mr. Trudeau’s party, running on a [platform]( in which environmental issues figured prominently. Stephen Harper’s election wins in 2006, 2008 and 2011, in contrast, were based on the splitting of those votes among the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois, allowing the Conservatives succeed despite receiving less that 40 per of the popular vote in all three elections.

The Green Party’s recent electoral successes, wining the federal [Nanaimo-Ladysmith]( by-election, becoming the [official opposition]( in PEI, holding the balance of power in British Columbia, and electing provincial members in New Brunswick and Ontario, highlight the risks of the re-emergence that phenomena.

Ms. McKenna’s young questioner last month personified chances of the federal Liberals of loosing younger, environmentally concerned voters to the Greens over the contradictions in the government’s approach to environmental matters, especially the handling of the Trans Mountain pipeline issue.

If this were not bad enough for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, a new crisis as emerged over the past few weeks from an unexpected source – the Senate. The Conservative dominated Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment, Natural Resources has made major [amendments]( to Bill C-69, the government’s environmental assessment reform legislation, reportedly largely at the [behest]( of the Government of Alberta and the oil and gas industry, significantly weakening an already [feeble]( reform bill. The Conservative majority on Senate Transport Committee, for its part, has [rejected]( Bill C-48, banning large oil tanker traffic on the West Coast. Although the full Senate has yet to weigh in on the bills, the situation presents serious challenges for the government.

Leaving aside the constitutional issues arising from the unelected Senate making major amendments to legislation adopted by the elected House of Commons, capitulating to the Senate committee’s amendments to Bill C-69 and rejection of C-48 would further damage the government’s already uncertain record in the eyes of environmentally concerned voters. This would especially be the case, for example, among the ridings in the lower mainland of British Columbia, where the Liberals made [major gains]( in 2015.

A collapse on the environmental assessment and tanker legislation could only drive more voters into the arms of Elizabeth May’s Greens, while the prospects of any electoral benefits flowing from such a path from Alberta and Saskatchewan voters seem very slim. At the same time such an outcome would increase the chances of a narrow Conservative federal election win, restoring a government that would put the expansion of [energy exports ]( all else.

The Trudeau government was elected on the basis of a reconciliation between economic and environmental progress. In practice this has manifested itself in the pursuit of strong, but deeply contradictory environmental and economic agendas. The government now finds itself called out, as it was at Ms.McKenna’s speech in Toronto, on those contradictions. How it responds is likely to have a major impact on the outcome of October’s 2019 federal election and the future of Canada's environment and economy.