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On energy and environment, you can find Trudeau in the political middle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Houston, Texas on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Donald Trump's pro-oil chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was the lunchtime speaker at Houston's big energy conference on Thursday. Justin Trudeau was the evening headliner.

It might seem odd to see a Liberal PM at the confab in Texas, following the guy most environmentalists think is under orders to gut U.S. climate measures. Mr. Trudeau promised action on climate change. And now he's under attack from both sides of the political spectrum when it comes to climate-change policies and pipelines.

But on those issues, Mr. Trudeau has found there is a political middle. And it's big.

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You might think otherwise if you watched his opponents. The first candidate in the NDP's leadership race, Peter Julian, is running against any new pipelines. A number of Conservatives have lined up to warn that Mr. Trump's plan to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change and promote fossil fuels means that Mr. Trudeau will have to soften his climate-change policies.

But when asked in an Angus Reid Institute online survey what Canada should do if Mr. Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, only 16 per cent said they think Canada should reduce its own commitments. At the other end, among environmentally conscious voters, only 17 per cent think Canada should increase its commitment to reduce emissions.

But most people are Goldilocks folks who think Canada should stick to its commitments as they are – that's 67 per cent, according to the Angus Reid survey.

So what was Mr. Trudeau doing in Houston? He was getting an award from the organizers of the event, CERAweek, for marrying promotion of energy with environmental stewardship. He was telling oil executives that the only way to ensure resources will get to market in the future is to have credible climate-change policies. He called the National Energy Program introduced by his father, Pierre, a "failure" because it injected too much state control into the energy sector. And he touted the pipelines he has approved. In other words, he was claiming to be a champion of both sides.

Mr. Trudeau might not be crushing the popularity polls any more, as he did in 2016. But on issues of climate change and pipelines, his policies align with the views of most Canadians.

He dismayed some by approving the expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C., and he's backing the Keystone XL pipeline. But another Angus Reid survey last June found that 41 per cent agreed with the National Energy Board's recommendation that the Trans-Mountain expansion be approved, while only 24 per cent thought it was the wrong decision. The more recent survey found 48 per cent supported Keystone XL and 33 per cent opposed it.

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More folks support the pipelines than oppose them. The Liberals might worry they will lose some voters to an anti-pipeline NDP, but that works both ways: That recent Angus Reid survey found 33 per cent of NDP voters support the Keystone XL pipeline, too.

Mr. Trudeau's politics seem to be where the lion's share of Canadians are: they want both oil pipelines and actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Both, together.

Mr. Trudeau has pledged that he'd impose a carbon tax on any province that doesn't put a price on carbon, has endorsed Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's proposed cap on emissions, signed a climate deal with most provinces – and at the same time, has backed major pipeline projects.

That doesn't necessarily mean they are the right policies. Some of Mr. Trudeau's critics argue that carbon pricing won't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as much as he promises, for example, or that his climate-change policies cannot feasibly fit together with the pipelines. But the big middle wants both.

The Liberals' biggest political rivals, meanwhile, only have two of 14 leadership candidates, Michael Chong and Erin O'Toole, who really have a climate-change policy. The other 12 mostly like to rail against a carbon tax. Mr. Chong's support for a tax often raises boos. Preston Manning, the former Reform Party leader, just stepped out to argue that Conservatives should stop attacking the carbon-tax idea.

Mr. Trudeau may be under attack from both sides, but his big advantage is that most Canadians don't want one side without the other. He's claiming the big middle for himself.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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