It’s too early for a pipeline victory dance in the streets, even if you are so inclined.The Trans Mountain project took a step back into reality Friday with the National Energy Board approval that everyone expected.But it’s still a cancelled pipeline after the disastrous Federal Court of Appeal decision of last Aug 30.Trans Mountain will be legally extinct until the Trudeau cabinet re-approves it, ostensibly within the 90-day guideline for these decisions.It’s absurd to imagine the cabinet failing to grant a new certificate, after spending $4.5 billion to buy the whole works from Kinder Morgan.Cabinet rejection would combine with the SNC-Lavalin fiasco and likely drive the Liberals from office in the federal election this fall. No government can survive two spectacular regional fiascos in the same year.Approval has to come at some point, obviously.But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wounded cabinet have a very tricky choice here, and it’s all about election timing.Under the worst scenario, the cabinet may just let the decision ride until after the election. That would push the construction reboot well into 2020.The simplest and best solution would be to approve the pipeline by the end of May and get construction moving as quickly as possible.
Oil and gas supporters gather in front of the National Energy Board in Calgary Friday, February 22, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia
There would be controversy on the coast, and more legal challenges, but at least the thing would be a fait accompli by federal voting day, likely in October.The pipeline could well be a fading national issue by then. And the Liberals would win back approval among many westerners.Premier Rachel Notley doesn’t expect approval within 90 days, but she sure wouldn’t object. Federal approval before her own election would be an NDP bonanza.A quick approval would take courage and decisive leadership, though. The Liberals don’t show much of either these days.For one thing, cabinet isn’t bound by this 90-day guideline for approving or rejecting an NEB approval. In fact, it’s usually ignored.Notley points out that with both Northern Gateway and the first Trans Mountain approval, the gap between NEB approval and cabinet certificates was about six months.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to media in Calgary Friday, February 22, 2019. She addressed and responded to the National Energy Board decision regarding the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Federal sources suggest there’s hope of getting this one done within the guideline. It’s less complicated because this is the second round and many details are already decided.But the feds also won’t specifically promise to decide within 90 days because that would suggest there’s a cutoff date for Indigenous consultation.That impression helped bring down the first approval. So they’re avoiding any hint of a deadline.Notley is probably right, then — federal response to the NEB, and work on the First Nations engagement, could extend well beyond the 90-day period that began Friday.She doesn’t see that as a threat to cabinet approval that would allow construction to start again by fall.But then, she’s a self-professed optimist. You must be, to see the Liberals making a highly contentious decision that benefits Alberta with an election very close.Trudeau’s federal caucus and cabinet are not entirely united on the pipeline. The more ardent climate-change activists don’t like it at all. From the moment the Liberals were elected in 2015, it was obvious that some key players don’t even like to talk about the project.Related That same crew (including Finance Minister Bill Morneau) were then forced to buy the project when Kinder Morgan threatened to pull out.Having done that, and then swallowing the federal court rejection, can we really imagine the Liberals staking their electoral survival on the pipeline?But they must. This is hugely important to a country that has already lost $100 billion in resource investment, according to the C.D. Howe Institute.As another PM once said, roll the dice. Approval no later than June, construction starting in late summer.Go ahead, Liberals. Amaze Alberta.Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Heralddbraid@postmedia.comTwitter: @DonBraidFacebook: Don Braid Politics