The Canadian government is going into the boardrooms of Calgary, Toronto, Houston and New York to privately discuss new financial subsidies for fossil fuel giant Kinder Morgan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday at a news conference.
Trudeau made the comments after summoning Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and B.C. Premier John Horgan to Ottawa to discuss the unfolding political drama surrounding the Texas-based company's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
"This is a series of discussions that are happening in Calgary, in Toronto, in Houston and New York," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. They won't happen in public, but as soon as we have something to announce, I promise we will let you know."
The emerging controversy was triggered earlier this month when Kinder Morgan threatened to cancel its multibillion dollar project due to uncertainty driven by opposition to Trans Mountain in B.C.
After meeting with the two western premiers in his office for more than an hour, Trudeau emerged with some details about his plan to get the pipeline built.
He explained that he had instructed Finance Minister Bill Morneau to lead the "formal financial discussions with Kinder Morgan," to remove the uncertainty that is clouding the prospects of the Trans Mountain project. He also said he told Notley and Horgan that his government was working on legislation to reaffirm federal jurisdiction over the interprovincial pipeline, and stop provincial efforts to scuttle the project.
"As I said, we have engaged in financial discussions with the pipeline owner, with Kinder Morgan," Trudeau said. "This is a series of discussions that are happening in Calgary, in Toronto, in Houston and New York. They won't happen in public, but as soon as we have something to announce, I promise we will let you know."
Any new money for Kinder Morgan would be added onto hundreds of millions of dollars that the Trudeau government has already committed, on behalf of taxpayers, for the pipeline, which would triple the capacity of heavy oil from Alberta flowing to the west coast of British Columbia, allowing oilsands producers to ship up to 890,000 barrels of heavy oil per day.
Trudeau says 43 out of 114 First Nations have signed agreements with Kinder Morgan
The Trudeau government previously announced a $1.5 billion federal plan to protect Canada's oceans and address the dramatic increase in west coast oil tanker traffic that will be driven by the Trans Mountain expansion. This despite recommendations from the federal Environment Department that the company should cover these costs on its own.
The government also created a $65 million program to accommodate First Nations affected by the project that will be paid for through federal funds, and not by the company.
Trudeau has said that the pipeline project is in the national interest since it will support growth in Canada's oil and gas industry as well as Alberta's participation in a national climate change plan.
But many First Nations believe he has taken the wrong approach, describing it as "paternalistic," "inadequate," and "unrealistic," according to memos prepared for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr a few weeks before the government announced it was approving the pipeline project.
Carr was told in one internal memo sent on Nov. 10, 2016, less than three weeks before Trudeau announced his decision to approve the project, that 59 out of 114 Indigenous groups affected by the pipeline needed more time for adequate consultations, while 32 groups had signed a mutual benefit agreement, at that time.
More than a year later, Trudeau said the number of Indigenous groups accepting agreements has increased slightly.
"Canada has completed the deepest consultation with rights holders ever on a major project in this country and working with our Indigenous partners has been paramount," Trudeau said at the news conference on Sunday. "To date, 43 First Nations have negotiated benefits agreements with the project, 33 of those in British Columbia."
Several First Nations have also launched a legal challenge of Trudeau's approval, arguing that the federal government failed in its duty to consult and asking the Federal Court of Appeal to quash his decision. This case was heard last fall and the ruling is still pending.
Kinder Morgan won't provide details of consultations
When asked to comment on Trudeau's latest statements, Kinder Morgan declined to answer questions about its private negotiations with the federal government, instead sending a general statement about its position.
"Our objectives are to obtain certainty with respect to the ability to construct through BC and for the protection of our shareholders in order to build the Trans Mountain Expansion Project," Kinder Morgan Canada Limited told National Observer in a statement.
"As we said last week, we do not intend to issue updates or further disclosures on the status of consultations until we’ve reached a sufficiently definitive agreement on or before May 31 that satisfies our objectives."
In British Columbia, Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, criticized the government, saying that the prime minister's comments were running counter to Canada's commitments to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which requires Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), prior to making decisions that affect their rights.
"It doesn't matter how many times @JustinTrudeau states extensive #Consultation w/ #First Nations about #KinderMorgan," Chamberlin wrote in a message posted on Twitter. "It represents sole Crown decision making, undermines #Reconciliation & inconsistent w/ #UNDRIP which has #FPIC."
Chamberlin added that any further demonstrations and court actions launched by First Nations peoples would be a "clear response" to decisions made by governments to disregard their human rights.
Horgan called Couillard for advice
Speaking to reporters earlier, Horgan, who is opposed to the pipeline, said that he still expects new investments from the federal government to cover gaps in its national plan to protect oceans.
Scientists have warned that there is uncertainty surrounding what would happen to diluted bitumen, the product to be shipped on the Trans Mountain project, if it spills into the ocean. They have also warned that the increased marine traffic represents a serious threat to threatened populations of killer whales off the coast of B.C., a finding that was acknowledged during a federal review of the Kinder Morgan project by the National Energy Board.
Horgan's government has been studying the possibility of introducing new rules to restrict shipments of bitumen on the B.C. coast to protect the environment.
At his news conference, he also said that he welcomed new comments from the Quebec government that supported his position and warned Ottawa to tread carefully if it wanted to avoid creating a situation that would allow companies to ignore provincial rules designed to protect public health and the environment.
Those statements from Quebec came after Horgan called Premier Philippe Couillard earlier this week to ask for advice.
"I did have a very positive conversation with the premier of Quebec, earlier in the week," Horgansaid. "We have a similar world view and I have a great deal of respect for him so I was welcoming his advice on how I should proceed in this, the first meeting I've had of this nature, in my life. These are not things you do on a daily basis. So I sought his advice and he gave it to me."
The B.C. premier described the morning conversation with Notley and Trudeau as "very frank." They share many values, he added, but continue to disagree about whether it is acceptable to move more diluted bitumen from Alberta to Metro Vancouver.
"I felt no threats, no intimidation. It was a collegial meeting among peers. I was grateful to have had that opportunity. I had no objection to the tone or the content of our discussion.”
Notley greeted by protesters
At a separate news conference, Notley said that the risk of an oil spill was low, noting that there are strong safety measures in place to prevent accidents involving large oil tankers.
Notley, the first Alberta premier to introduce a comprehensive climate change plan that proposed a cap on emissions from the province's oilsands, Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, has drawn a lot of criticism from environmentalists for promoting the pipeline project.
But Notley said that the pipeline would add tens of billions of dollars to the Canadian economy while supporting the national climate change plan. But she said she felt a lot better about the prospects of it going ahead following her meeting with Trudeau and Horgan.
"I am quite confident that the nature of the conversation that we are having at this point will get the job done in terms of eliminating the uncertainty," she said.
Notley added that her government's own financial discussions with Kinder Morgan were also ongoing.
She was greeted by a small group of activists from the Council of Canadians who braved the cool temperatures in Ottawa on Sunday morning and chanted "Respect Indigenous rights," when she arrived for the meeting in the morning.
Two of the protesters, Andrea Harden-Donahue and Brent Patterson, initially arrived with a red banner that displayed their message. But they said that they were warned by RCMP officers to back off and that they might be fined for trespassing if they didn't put the banner away.
Andrew Scheer blames Trudeau for allowing situation to get out of hand
Speaking at his own news conference in Ottawa, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer said that the meeting between the first ministers should have happened weeks ago. He also blamed Trudeau for following a campaign promise to strengthen federal oversight of industry with new legislation, Bill C-69, which he said exacerbated the situation.
"I believe conversations around using taxpayers' dollars to backstop the project is a result of the crisis that we're in, that is of the prime minister's own making," Scheer said. "Had he seen the lay of the land politically in British Columbia and quickly referenced any jurisdictional questions to the Supreme Court back in the fall, had he not brought in Bill C-69, which further destabilized the investment community's confidence in these type of project, we very well may not be under the May 31 deadline."
In a message posted on Twitter, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also blamed Trudeau for creating a "mess" by approving the pipeline following a federal review that started under former prime minister Stephen Harper, instead of restarting the assessment as the Liberals had promised in the 2015 election.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May used harsher language to condemn Trudeau's plans, saying it violated another promise to end fossil fuel subsidies while perpetuating Canada's colonial legacy by keeping Indigenous leaders out of the process.
"To reassure Kinder Morgan shareholders, Trudeau will buy into the project, and have Finance Minister Bill Morneau broker a deal behind closed doors," May said in a statement. "It's an affront to democracy. Canadians should know where their money is going and they shouldn't be bankrolling a giant Texas corporation by providing new subsidies to a major fossil fuel project. The reality is that Kinder Morgan's project is high risk because it lacks markets, and now Trudeau is prepared to bail them out."
Their comments also coincided with a CBC report that First Nations and Métis communities in the northern part of Alberta, near the oilsands, were interested in getting an ownership stake in Trans Mountain or a future pipeline. One of the Indigenous leaders who made these comments, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, has criticized the pace of oilsands expansion in the past, but has also noted he's not against the industry.
"The fact is I am tired," he said in the CBC report. "I am tired of fighting. We have accomplished what we have accomplished. Now let's move on and let's start building a pipeline and start moving oil that's here already."
Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema also criticized Trudeau's plans to offer new financial support for the project.
"The federal government can’t buy off the opposition to this failing pipeline, as it is grounded in a commitment to action on climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and protecting the B.C. coast," Hudema said. "If Trudeau believes he can ram this pipeline through, he is misreading both the constitution and the electorate, while underestimating the opposition on the ground.
"Bailing out failing projects, strong-arming Indigenous communities by ignoring their right to consent, and bypassing calls for science-based decision making are ways to create a crisis, not solve one. The reality remains Indigenous communities have said 'no,' the resistance continues to grow, and this pipeline isn’t going anywhere."
With files from Trish Audette-Longo.