NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appears to be backing the position of British Columbia in a bitter west-coast pipeline dispute that has split his party along the Alberta border.

Speaking to National Observer as the party's weekend policy convention was concluding in Ottawa on Sunday, Singh said that the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion needs a more thorough environmental assessment before construction. This lines up with a recent British Columbia proposal to do more scientific research before allowing a massive increase in oil exports on tankers shipping out the heavy crude from the Kinder Morgan project.

Singh made the comments after being asked how he would respond to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who last week made clear she wants progress on the pipeline project and an end to an ongoing pipeline-trade dispute between her province and British Columbia.

"I’d say if it’s subject to an environmental assessment that was modernized, that’s science-based, that had all the concerns around the environment addressed, then and only then can we move forward," Singh said.

But the NDP leader said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government failed to follow through on a proper environmental assessment before approving the pipeline in 2016. Trudeau recently told National Observer that the pipeline was approved through a better process than the one established by the government of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Trudeau also said he viewed realization of the Kinder Morgan pipeline as a trade-off for Alberta to undertake climate change reduction strategies. The prime minister added that he was getting frustrated by John Horgan, accusing the B.C. premier of trying to "scuttle" Canada's national climate change goals by opposing the pipeline.

But Singh said Trudeau was to blame for not resolving the dispute.

"Listen, we’re here today because the federal government’s supposed to step up and provide a process. They didn’t do their job, they haven’t created a science-based, evidence-based process that alleviates the concerns or addresses the environmental concerns," Singh said. "When people don’t have confidence that the environment’s being protected, they’re rightfully upset. It makes sense."

Singh said people, "don’t have confidence in the decisions made," and he is also "concerned around issues around the environment" and what was left out of the assessment process, including the potential difficulty of cleaning up diluted bitumen.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh doesn't support Kinder Morgan's proposed pipeline expansion based on: Indigenous consent, Canada's climate change goals, and local job creation. #BCpoli
Trish Audette-Longo interviews Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault
National Observer's Trish Audette-Longo interviews NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Feb. 18, 2018 during a party convention in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Singh and Horgan's views about the Kinder Morgan project are also consistent with Environment and Climate Change Canada's final arguments at the federal hearings into the Kinder Morgan project in January 2016. At that time, the federal department noted that there were "significant gaps and uncertainties" surrounding what would happen to the bitumen shipped on the pipeline if it spilled in a marine environment, and it recommended that the company be required to fund more research to address those gaps.

In response, the Trudeau government introduced a $1.5 billion plan in November 2016 to address the research gaps and improve protection of Canada's oceans. But it won't require that Texas-based Kinder Morgan pay for these new measures, and it hasn't yet provided all the details of what will happen under the five-year plan.

On Sunday, Singh said he isn't talking to Notley, or to British Columbia's John Horgan, about their dispute. Both NDP premiers were absent from the Ottawa convention, and they are on opposite sides of the Kinder Morgan project.

Horgan has promised to use "every tool in the tool box" to stop the pipeline expansion that would triple the amount of Alberta bitumen being carried to port in the Lower Mainland. Notley wants the pipeline built. Since Horgan's government announced it wanted to more closely examine the effects of spilled bitumen before the pipeline moves forward, she has put the brakes on talks to buy B.C. electricity and importing B.C. wine.

Notley has also launched a task force to deal with the trade dispute, and an online campaign focused on "keep(ing) Canadians working" and putting pressure on B.C.

While Horgan has said he won't escalate the interprovincial trade war, on the weekend, he committed the B.C. government to appealing the National Energy Board's recent decision to bypass Burnaby's bylaws, tweeting "We will continue to stand up for BC and defend BC's coast."

When he spoke to his place in the B.C.-Alberta battle on Sunday, Singh contextualized both Notley's and Horgan's efforts as doing their jobs for their constituents.

"The premier of Alberta, Premier Notley, is doing exactly what she promised the people of Alberta (she would do) to defend their interests, to defend their economy. Premier Horgan is doing what he promised to do for British Columbians, he promised to defend their concerns around the environment, their concerns around the coast," he said.

Niki Ashton speaks in support of a motion on Sunday, February 18th 2018, day three of the New Democratic Party 2018 policy convention held at the Shaw Convention Centre in Ottawa. Photo by Alex Tétreault
Niki Ashton speaks in support of a motion on Feb. 18, 2018, Day 3 of the NDP's policy convention at the Shaw Conference Centre in Ottawa. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Federal NDP pressured by some to weigh in for B.C.

Singh is on the record as not supporting the Kinder Morgan project based on three missing pieces: Indigenous consent, Canada's climate change goals, and local job creation.

But he and the national party were under some pressure going into the weekend convention to voice more explicit support for Horgan's government. In the end, the party did not pass any resolutions related to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and Singh didn't speak to the issue during his leadership speech Saturday afternoon.

Niki Ashton, a former NDP leadership contender and MP for the Manitoba riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, was among those who wanted to see the party convention take a stand against the pipeline.

"Folks know that the federal NDP has expressed its opposition, we've talked about the regulatory framework being inadequate, we've talked about the opposition from Indigenous communities, and then obviously the B.C. government has made its position clear," Ashton told Observer Saturday. "I hope our position is known, but as we enter a phase where people are worried, are angry, I think it's important for the federal NDP to make that position clear at every step and obviously to show solidarity with folks on the ground in B.C."

Speaking to growing tension between the Notley and Horgan governments, Ashton said, "We agree on a lot of fronts with both governments, but we also disagree, and I think this is obviously an example of that. But, as far as Kinder Morgan goes, we've made it clear that this is our position."

To the call to vocally support British Columbia, Singh said the problem circles back to the federal government: “I believe that it’s important to be concerned about the environment, it’s fundamental. The environment is the biggest question of our generation, how do we protect the environment, how do we reduce emissions, how do we tackle climate change, these are fundamentally important questions. And they’re important for us to focus in on. And that’s why I’ve been really clear that we are really disappointed with the fact that the federal government and Prime Minister Trudeau broke that promise to have a renewed process.”

Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto, described the federal NDP as "trying to walk a fine line."

"So what's the federal NDP's position? It seems to be, well, the Liberals' environmental process is inadequate. So what does that mean? Where do you stand on that issue?" Wiseman asked. "We don't have a clear position from the NDP on this."

But going into the 2019 federal election, Wiseman said the opposition party doesn't necessarily need to have a clear position. "I don't think coming out firmly, one side or the other, helps them. And it might hurt them."

The NDP has struggled in all federal by-elections held since the 2015 election, failing to get more than 15 per cent of the vote in 11 out of the 12 ridings that went to the polls to elect new MPs. None of these ridings had incumbent NDP MPs. But the party could soon face a big test in the Montreal-area riding of Outremont, with former NDP leader Tom Mulcair expected to retire from federal politics in June.

Jagmeet Singh speaks to delegates during the NDP's convention in Ottawa on Feb. 17, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault
Jagmeet Singh speaks to delegates during the NDP's convention in Ottawa on Feb. 17, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

A "tough bind" for Singh

Singh said he didn't see a party divided or a particular tension between delegates from the Prairies and those from British Columbia.

Rather, after more than 90 per cent of the party delegates in Ottawa voted against holding another leadership race, Singh said he has "a really strong leadership mandate" in addition to "a number of great policies that came forward."

"I would say we have a united party, a party that’s shown a lot of enthusiasm. The largest policy convention in our history in terms of attendance. The youngest, most diverse. Things are looking great," he said.

Avi Lewis, a documentary filmmaker and an organizer of the progressive non-partisan Leap Manifesto, described Singh's position as unenviable.

"I understand that Jagmeet is in a very difficult position: there's two NDP premiers in Canada, and they're on a collision course around this one pipeline. But we live in perilous times with the most profound stakes imaginable, and it's time to take a stand based on science, based on what's right," Lewis said Sunday.

Leap organizers call for a "U-turn" on fossil fuel use to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, which includes halting the construction or planning of new oilsands infrastructure.

"I'm confused about why it's difficult for the federal NDP to take this clear position," on Kinder Morgan, Lewis said. "But I do understand Jagmeet as a new leader is in a really tough bind, with two NDP premiers at each other's throats."

Lewis noted that Notley's climate change plan still allows oilsands producers to emit more greenhouse gases than they do now (the legislated cap is 100 megatonnes of emissions per year, and producers are now estimated to emit 70 megatonnes per year).

"What does it mean for two NDP premiers to be at war, for the federal party? It means that one of those NDP premiers is out of step with history and with what is required practically and on matters of principle at this historic moment," Lewis said. "A federal leader has a lot of interests to balance, but there's also a time to take ... a fundamentally principled position which I believe is also a practical one."

In addition to capping emissions, the Alberta climate leadership plan also puts a price on carbon and aims to phase out coal-generated electricity by 2030.

Alberta MLA Jessica Littlewood talks to a fellow NDP delegate at the party's national convention in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault
Alberta MLA Jessica Littlewood talks to a fellow NDP delegate at the party's national convention in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

In a seperate interview, Alberta NDP MLA Jessica Littlewood, specifically flagged Alberta's climate leadership. "We are pricing carbon in a way that puts it back to work for our province and allows us also to continue to move that climate change conversation forward at the federal level. As was stated by the prime minister, without Alberta you don't have a climate change plan."

In Notley's government, Littlewood represents the riding of Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville immediately outside Edmonton. At the NDP convention in Ottawa on Saturday, she described her role as "representing Alberta and making sure that Alberta's voice is at the table when we talk about these issues at the federal table."

"We got together with our fellow delegates and discussed how we move together from (the) convention in solidarity, how we look after the interests of working people, working people and working families, while knowing that we have to protect our economy at the same time. How do we develop energy responsibly, but also know that the world's energy markets are changing, so how do we stay ahead of that," she said.

Asked about questions she received from fellow delegates on the weekend, Littlewood said she heard a lot about bringing together the party's labour and environmental roots.

Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan spoke to a party resolution to strengthen environmental laws at the NDP convention in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault
Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan spoke about strengthening environmental laws at the NDP convention in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

NDP resolve to strengthen environmental laws

The NDP's lone Alberta member of parliament, Linda Duncan, blamed the federal government for the growing "rift" between Alberta and B.C.

“My constituents tend to be very pro-environment, but I also have a lot of people who live in my riding who work in the oilsands or have businesses... I think that there’s just (frustration) across-the-board, and I’m sure across British Columbia as in Alberta, frustration that there is this rift," Duncan said. "And the rift is not really the fault of the B.C. NDP government or the Alberta NDP government. It’s the federal government needs to step in and actually resolve this. I mean, it actually is a pipeline approved at the federal level.”

Duncan's federal riding, Edmonton-Strathcona, overlaps with Rachel Notley's. Both first won their seats in 2008.

Duncan said she has not spoken to Notley on the Kinder Morgan issue recently, however. "I stay away from provincial politics. They have their thing to do, I have my thing to do. I’m very clear about jurisdictional boundaries."

She also said she does not take positions on pipelines. Instead, she argues they should not be approved without respectfully sitting down with affected First Nations peoples and resolving their land claims first.

On Friday night, Duncan supported an NDP resolution to strengthen federal environmental laws by enshrining people's ability to hold the government to account. This would include improving access to information and protecting whistleblowers. The resolution also included "consideration of vulnerable populations in environmental risk assessment," ensuring people affected by a project have the rights and resources to appear before courts and tribunals, and "the public right to compel effective enforcement of environmental laws and to bring environmental protection actions."

"To me that’s just good governance," Duncan said after the resolution was passed by delegates. "I believe in law and order for the environment. Government has (the) mandate and responsibility to protect public interest, so there should be a law that holds them accountable, and there should be a power of the public to hold them accountable."

She acknowledged some frustration among delegates who wanted pipelines to be debated explicitly during the convention.

But, she said, if environmental rights were enshrined in law, more people would be heard. "What everybody is so upset about is they felt like they were never heard when they opposed that project."

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Singh has certainly stuck his neck out, and rightly so.
It's not always popular to do the right thing.

Any project that pits the people of one province against the people of another province is NOT in the national interest, irrespective of what the prime minister says.