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On pipelines, Trudeau strikes the right balance

Feel free to quibble with the particulars of the Trudeau government's big pipeline package: Two thumbs up for Line 3 and Trans Mountain, thumbs down on Northern Gateway, extra money for spill prevention on the nation's coasts, and a long-term plan to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel use by taxing carbon to the tune of at least $50 a tonne by 2022.

But stepping back and looking at the big picture, it's hard to disagree with how the government has analyzed the problem and come up with a framework for simultaneously reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, allowing the oil industry to operate efficiently, and beginning the long transition to a low-carbon economy. The government has struck the right balance.

Some critics will argue that the Trudeau government should be imposing stricter environmental conditions on pipelines, or devoting more money to protecting coastal waters, or that carbon taxes should be rising higher and faster, the better to lower Canada's carbon emissions more sharply and sooner. These details are worth arguing over.

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If you are one of those Canadians arguing over those details, congratulations: You're on the right track. You've also accepted the government's framework for thinking about the problem.

Pipelines are tools to move oil, and they must be made as safe as possible. But pipelines are not, in and of themselves, important greenhouse-gas sources. Trying to reduce carbon emissions by blocking new pipelines makes as much sense as trying to discourage automobile use by limiting the number of new gas stations. There are better ways of lowering carbon emissions.

That's why the Trudeau government is right: It's possible to meet Canada's climate-change commitments while growing the economy, and even growing the oil industry.

Blocking pipelines is politically spectacular, hence the appeal for so many protesters. But ecologically speaking, if the goal is lower greenhouse-gas emissions, it's an extremely inefficient solution – causing severe economic pain for limited environmental return.

A Canada without the pipeline capacity to move the oil it produces would have a less efficient and smaller economy. It would also likely have a bigger trade deficit, since our cars could simply be filled with imported oil, of which the world has rather a lot. And more Canadian oil would end up moving by somewhat more expensive and less safe rail. The world can and must transition away from an oil-based economy. But forcing oil producers and consumers to move the commodity by less efficient means is not going to wean the planet off oil.

The better way, the way the government has chosen, is to put a price on carbon, thereby discouraging use across the entire economy – while leaving it up to consumers and businesses to figure out how to best reduce emissions in the face of those rising costs.

But if the Trudeau government is right on the broad strokes of the policy, it still has work to do on the details. Last year, it said it would change the environmental review process for pipelines so government would be a referee, not a cheerleader. Yet Tuesday's announcement was as politicized as ever. The federal cabinet, not a regulator, gave the red light to Northern Gateway and imposed a ban on tankers in northern B.C. waters.

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There are arguments to be made that the National Energy Board's earlier approval of Northern Gateway (or for that matter Trans Mountain) was mistaken, or that the regulator didn't impose tough enough conditions on the developer, or didn't accurately weigh the risks of a spill. But the government did not create a new, impartial process to replace the NEB's original decision. Cabinet simply stepped in. It had powerful political reasons for doing so. But the goal should be getting politics out of pipeline approval and regulation. That's not what happened on Tuesday.

In B.C.'s Lower Mainland, opponents of Trans Mountain are gearing up, since the project means an increasing number of oil tankers passing through the waters around Vancouver. But the government, in choosing which pipes to greenlight and which to block, has definitely chosen the path of least political resistance.

Line 3, from Alberta to Manitoba, involves refurbishing an existing pipeline with new equipment. The Trans Mountain expansion will triple the capacity of a pipe that's been around for decades. The former is the equivalent of a home reno; the latter is like putting an addition onto an existing home. Northern Gateway, in contrast was, as they say in the business, greenfield construction.

Every project that involves moving oil by tanker, like Trans Mountain, needs to be surrounded by the highest standards in spill prevention and remediation. Whether Ottawa has done that is a discussion worth having.

But when it comes to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, arguing over which pipelines to build and which to block is a sideshow that deserves to be sidelined.

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