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The Trudeau government says it was warned by public servants about the risks of civil disobedience or protests in advance of its 2016 decision to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project. But it wants to keep these warnings, delivered to ministers through internal briefings, a secret.
Natural Resources Canada confirmed, in a new response to a request made by National Observer through access to information legislation, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet ministers were briefed internally about these topics in November 2016. But it has refused to release any of the material, citing a section of Canada's access to information legislation that allows the government to withhold records containing what it considers to be privileged information meant only for cabinet ministers.
"The documents which are relevant to this request have all been exempted from disclosure," the federal department said in its response to the access to information request in a letter dated April 9.
The letter followed a Feb. 12 request from National Observer for briefing material and memos that mentioned civil disobedience or protests in the weeks before the Trudeau government approved the pipeline. The department also sent a separate letter denying access to the final memo to cabinet that provided advice on the Kinder Morgan decision, announced by Trudeau on Nov. 29, 2016.
Canada's access to information legislation requires federal government organizations to release information to Canadians who pay a $5.00 fee within 30 days, unless it has a valid reason to delay or deny access.
Public servants are required to withhold records that are considered to be cabinet secrets. The current legislation also allows public servants to label material as a cabinet secret — even if it is a matter of common knowledge — if they want to prevent it from being released.
Revelations about the warnings have coincided with Kinder Morgan's threat to walk away from the project in the absence of guarantees that the federal government can ensure it can be built, despite strong opposition in British Columbia.
Trudeau cabinet holds emergency meeting on Kinder Morgan
In Ottawa, Trudeau's cabinet held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to what business leaders, bankers and oilpatch executives have described as a "crisis."
A number of options are on the table, including investing taxpayer money to buy a stake in the fossil fuel project as well as invoking rarely-used constitutional powers to drive the project to its completion through B.C.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said that her government was even considering "purchasing the pipeline outright," in a statement that was also delivered on Tuesday.
But Trudeau's ministers were tight-lipped as they left the cabinet room, many of them rushing away from reporters and saying little about what they would do next.
"I apologize in advance. I’ve got one minute and I’ve got to catch a plane," Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said as he briefly stopped to take a few questions from reporters with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi. "We believe there are many options that will be of interest for the Government of Canada. We’ll examine them all thoroughly. I’ve got to go."
McKenna added in French that the government believed the pipeline was in the national interest, while Sohi declined to provide further updates.
"We don't discuss Cabinet discussions," said Sohi, who represents an Edmonton riding for the Liberals in the House of Commons. "But we are committed to this project. We will get this project built."
Protests and arrests have become a regular occurrence in recent weeks at the site of a Trans Mountain terminal in Burnaby, B.C., that would become a major hub for oil tankers if the pipeline expansion project proceeds. The protests have accelerated in recent weeks after Texas-based Kinder Morgan sought and obtained an injunction to stop protest activity at its Burnaby construction site in metro Vancouver.
The federal government had also received warnings in internal briefings that Indigenous leaders felt it was rushing to conclude consultations instead of engaging with them in a meaningful way, National Observer reported in January. Other documents indicated that scientists had also flagged missing evidence that needed to be addressed, prior to approving the new pipeline expansion.
All of these factors have triggered concerns among Trans Mountain opponents that the federal review of the project was inadequate and should have been redone.
If built, the Trans Mountain expansion would triple the capacity of an existing line through a modified route that would allow it to ship up to 890,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the Burnaby terminal. Supporters of the project, including Prime Minister Trudeau's Liberals and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats, have argued the pipeline would spur growth by allowing oil producers to expand their reach to new markets in Asia.
Opponents say the pipeline would lead to oil spills and push Canada's climate change targets out of reach by driving expansion in Alberta's oilsands sector. The oilsands are the country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and home to the world's third largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
But the Notley government has said it plans to cap emissions from the oilsands through a climate change plan. Trudeau, in a February interview with National Observer, also said that the approval of the Kinder Morgan project was part of a "trade off" designed to secure Alberta's support for a national climate change strategy.
Trudeau's Liberals swept to power in the 2015 election after he had criticized the federal review process for major industrial projects, pledging to restart the Trans Mountain review from scratch. This was all part of a larger plan that the Liberals said they would implement to restore public confidence in the government's oversight of industry.
But once in government, his cabinet instead opted to launch a second review led by a special panel, which confirmed that there were gaps in the process that was initially led by the Calgary-based National Energy Board.
The Trudeau government said it has addressed these gaps through a new multimillion dollar Indigenous advisory committee as well as a $1.5 billion plan, spread out over five years, to protect Canada's oceans.
The government has also said that it would not have approved the Trans Mountain project as well as the Enbridge Line 3 replacement — another pipeline expansion project — if it were not in the national interest.
"The right to peaceful protest is at the foundation of our rights and freedoms in Canada and our government respects that right, be we also expect people to act in accordance with the law," said a spokesman for Carr, the natural resources minister. "We recognize that not everyone agrees with these decisions but we remain committed to working with provinces, territories and Indigenous peoples to ensure a strong economy while taking leadership on the environment.
"Our government is actively exploring all options at our disposal to ensure this project moves forward including regulatory, legal and financial options. It's not a matter of whether the project will go ahead but how. We intend to work with everyone because this is a project that will benefit people right across this country. This pipeline will be built."
Editor's note: This article was updated at 9:35 a.m. ET on April 11, 2018 to include additional background information about the access to information process and new statements from the office of Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.