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Tara Weber

BNN Bloomberg Western Correspondent

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Despite the controversy over the federally-owned Trans Mountain expansion project in the last few years, the pipeline has largely been flying under the radar in this election campaign.

Just this past week Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said energy issues need to be a bigger focus for the federal leaders.

“The situation in Alberta’s economy and our energy sector should be on the national agenda in this federal election,” Jason Kenney told BNN Bloomberg in a Tuesday interview. “The biggest creator of wealth and jobs in recent decades in Canada has been our oil and gas sector and it is hurting. It’s hurting because we haven’t got pipelines built.”

Some experts say the federal Liberal government missed a key opportunity before the election campaign by not locking down a deal with one of the First Nations groups vying to purchase the project. Such a deal could have helped move the expansion forward and provided a ready “win” for Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau even before the campaign began, the experts say.

"They should have cut a deal with the First Nations a year ago, when they announced [the cabinet approval of Trans Mountain for the second time] or as part of the announcement," said Dan Tsubouchi, principal and chief market strategist with Stream Asset Financial Management, in a phone interview. "An earlier deal with the First Nations would have given them a better chance to get it done sooner."

First Nations ownership of the controversial pipeline is seen by many as a way to counter opposition the project faces from some Indigenous communities along the route.

There are at least three different First Nations-led coalitions that are interested in taking over the pipeline, which the federal government bought last year for $4.5 billion after Kinder Morgan threatened to walk away due to opposition against the project.

The proposed expansion, first approved in 2016, would triple the amount of oil flowing from the oil sands to B.C.’s Lower Mainland. 



The federal government outlined the formal engagement process to move forward with a purchase by a First Nations group earlier this year.

One of the groups, Project Reconciliation, says while it "won't discuss details, [it] looks forward to continuing the conversation over the next several months."

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said Ottawa wouldn't negotiate the sale until after construction of the proposed expansion is "de-risked," but hasn't specified what that means. Regardless, Project Reconciliation is hedging its bets on the outcome of this election, noting both of the two front runners seem keen to get a deal done.

"Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer have been supportive about Indigenous ownership and involvement in Canada’s energy infrastructure. This is something that both sides can agree on, and Project Reconciliation welcomes their support," said Sarah Del Giallo, a spokesperson for the group.

Meanwhile, Kenney says he doesn’t believe a minority government would affect the future of the project.

“Both of the major parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – are committed to seeing [the Trans Mountain expansion] through,” Kenney told BNN Bloomberg. “Canadians and British Columbians, by a majority of two-to-one, support the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline. So, let’s get on with it.”

'MIXED OPPORTUNITY'

But others say the lack of progress – and attention – on the pipeline heading into this election campaign is a strategic, deliberate move on the part of the Liberal Party.

"[The pipeline] is a mixed opportunity for them," said Lori Williams, political science professor at Mount Royal University, pointing to the staunch opposition the project faces in key Liberal ridings, such as B.C.’s lower mainland and Quebec.

"To focus too much on this, especially if some press conferences are played in parts of the country where this could be a liability, is potentially problematic," Williams said.

"[Trudeau has] to tout his record in a general sense, without risking the support of some who don't think he's quite strong enough on the environment."

Williams adds that Trudeau has to be careful with discussions on Trans Mountain ownership and development during the campaign.

"If he campaigns too hard on it, two liabilities are associated with it,” Williams said. “One is that he leaves himself vulnerable to questions about when it's going to be done, and secondly, the possible backlash from those that oppose the pipeline.”

Meanwhile, predicting the timing of the project's completion is tricky given the constant legal challenges the project continues to face. Earlier this month, the B.C. Court of Appeal ordered the provincial government to reconsider the environmental assessment certificate and conditions that it had issued for Trans Mountain.

Transferring ownership to another party doesn't remove those challenges. And even transferring ownership to a First Nations coalition won't be a simple solution. Indigenous peoples are not homogenous and not all agree that First Nations' ownership of Trans Mountain is the best way forward, experts say. 

Some First Nations along the pipeline route oppose the project, including the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who have vowed it “will not be built.”

"Part of the problem in respecting Indigenous sovereignty is realizing Indigenous peoples are going to disagree with each other," said Matthew Wildcat, political science and native studies instructor at the University of Alberta.

He adds that interprovincial pipelines, like Trans Mountain, face difficulties because they involve so many different nations. "The idea of sharing it with other First Nations causes pause, and building up these deals involves a lot of trust," Wildcat said.

While equity partnership in the Trans Mountain pipeline has the potential to help First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people believe that they have a bigger opportunity to participate in Canada's energy economy in a meaningful way, the country still has a long way to go.

"I would be shocked if there was a deal soon," Wildcat said.