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What Trudeau’s Liberal Victory Means for Canada’s Oil Sands

The question is whether Justin Trudeau will continue the previous Conservative government’s agenda of extraction and pipeline construction. Based on the Liberals’ campaign promises, Canada is not about to see a complete 180.
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Canada's crimson tide likely won't bring with it a sea of green, at least not according to Liberal leader and incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau's climate change promises.

Monday night's Liberal sweep of the country with a 185-seat majority means the incoming government can set the agenda on a number of issues, including fossil fuel extraction. The pressure on Trudeau will come from two sides: Canadian oil companies clamoring for more pipelines to meet what they say will be increased production, and the fast-approaching Paris conference, which will turn up the heat on Canada to sign a binding legal agreement on emissions reductions to prevent catastrophic climate change.


Now the question is whether Trudeau will continue the previous Conservative government's agenda of extraction and pipeline construction — and based on the Liberals' platform and talking points throughout the 78-day election, Canada is not about to see a complete 180 on the issue.

Following the Liberal win, the White House reportedly said Tuesday, "we believe there's more Canada can do" on climate change. That hint comes after US president Barack Obama spiked Keystone XL because he says it would exacerbate climate change.

Now unseated, the oil-hungry Conservatives led by Stephen Harper made pipeline construction a priority, albeit a failed one, attempting to push through controversial projects like Keystone XL, saying Americans supported the project, with now-unseated Conservative minister of natural resources Greg Rickford adding it was a matter of when and not if.

Like his predecessor, Trudeau too is a fan of Keystone XL. And he's on the fence on Energy East, refusing to either support or oppose it.To add to that, less than a week before the election, news broke that Liberal national campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier, who has since resigned, gave lobbying advice to major Canadian pipeline company TransCanada — the company behind both the Keystone XL and Energy East proposals.

Related: A Canadian Political Dynasty Emerges as Justin Trudeau Ascends to Power

And the Financial Post reported Tuesday that despite speculation a Liberal government would make oil and gas stocks dip, the exact opposite happened, with the largest companies enjoying an uptick following Trudeau's win.


Trudeau's pipeline reasoning follows the petroleum industry's logic that Canada needs to get its resources to market, and pipelines are safer than moving oil by train, which would be increasingly necessary if production continues to ramp up.

"We know as an alternative to pipelines, we've seen oil by rail spike over the last few years with, in some cases, disastrous and even deadly consequences," Trudeau told the Toronto Star last month. "We need to ensure we are getting our resources to market in responsible, safe ways."

However, one notable difference from the Conservative agenda is Trudeau's stance on Northern Gateway, which faces perhaps the largest and loudest opposition of any proposed pipeline, rivaled only by opposition to Keystone XL. Trudeau has said the Great Bear rainforest is "not a place for a crude oil pipeline," and has floated the idea of banning tanker traffic along the north coast of BC, which would effectively kill Northern Gateway.

Meanwhile, on the question of how pipeline projects are approved, Trudeau has said the National Energy Board (NEB) begs for reform. But that wouldn't necessarily mean, for example, that the Liberals would put in place a climate impact test like the one Obama used to decide the fate of Keystone XL. Instead Trudeau promised to "restore a level of independence and intellectual rigor, if you like, to the processes of boards like the National Energy Board," meaning the reform would focus on creating a process Canadians could trust.


Where pipelines have crossed indigenous territory, tensions have flared and treaty concerns have halted projects. But Trudeau says he is committed to a nation-to-nation approach of consulting with First Nations groups, which he believes would result in more pipeline project approvals than the Conservatives managed.

Related: Pipeline Politics: Canada's Conflict Over Oil Spills Into Election

On climate change overall, Trudeau told voters he would phase out fossil fuel subsidies, instead investing in hundreds of millions into clean energy technologies. The Liberals would also increase funding toward "green" infrastructure by $6 billion in the first four years of governance.

And the party pledged to meet with provincial leaders within 90 days after the Paris summit to establish a cross-Canada plan to combat climate change, with a goal of reducing emissions.

But that's about where the Liberal platform ends on climate change.

Trudeau has not set clear emissions targets, while the Greens, NDP, and yes, even the Conservatives, set clear goals.

"We will not bring in a single program from Ottawa because the time for that has passed," Trudeau said on emissions. "We will instead allow provinces to set their framework but hold them to emission reductions targets that we will work out together."

The Liberals have also neglected to follow the left-leaning Greens and NDP in promising to put a price on carbon and pass legislation to make a healthy environment a right.

So while pipeline construction could ramp up under the Liberals, Canada could see a slight change of tone ahead of November's climate talks in Paris. Trudeau has said he will be there, alongside provincial leaders, but it remains to be seen whether he will commit to clear emissions reduction targets, and if so, how exactly he will meet them.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter@hilarybeaumont