NEB’s Trans Mountain recommendation casts feeble ray of light in Trudeau’s month of gloom

To twist a term: February has turned out to be a monthis horribilis for Justin Trudeau.

The 28 days cannot end soon enough.

The election looms and the Liberals are a tragic comedy. Most polls have his party trailing and falling behind the Conservatives.

His handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy has possessed the subtlety of a middle linebacker conducting neurosurgery. His BFF has resigned as principal secretary of his office and the ship is looking for spare parts to fashion a rudder. His clerk of the Privy Council hurt more than he helped in partisan parliamentary testimony this week. His former justice minister could next week deepen the misery.

He has been served with a surprise subpoena concerning the dismissal of a top military officer.

And now, this.

The National Energy Board (NEB) recommendation Friday that the Trans Mountain pipeline proceed with an additional 16 conditions – that brings the tally to 172 – might seem like good news, and in the context of this miserable month, it offers a slight ray of those old sunny ways.

But its report on a tight deadline walks a tightrope. The NEB could not – nor can anyone – instil terribly much more confidence that the project’s considerable economic value does not come without a considerable environmental footprint.

This iteration of the NEB process and result does not deeply digress from the one conducted under the Stephen Harper government. It arrives at the same overall conclusion but requires improvements to mitigate noise, prepare for spills, and reduce emissions, among other things.

The most controversial of its findings arise from an expansion of the NEB’s exploration in its review. There will be a “significant adverse impact” from the increased traffic on the endangered southern resident killer whale species – and, of course, the Indigenous cultural use related to it.

The NEB offers some proposals to mitigate: whale watching vessels, better coordination of traffic to amortize the impact, and the creation of a marine conservation area.

The report now puts this back in Trudeau’s laden lap. If he can be accused of ambiguity on certain matters, on the matter of expanding Trans Mountain he has been nothing if not clear-spoken: It will be built, Canada needs to find the best world market for its energy, and every piece of science and technology will be employed to deliver the safest possible system.

Still, his problems have deepened since he last spent any public time on the issue, and when principal secretary Gerald Butts left his office this week to protect the boss on SNC-Lavalin’s fallout, he left a note about the importance of tackling climate change. Trudeau might have wished his longtime friend left that paragraph out.

The resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould was also a blow to Trudeau’s mantra of seeking reconciliation with First Nations. The NEB review heard extensively from Indigenous leaders and groups, but the work is not done for the Trudeau government in appropriately consulting before constructing.

And yes, let’s not forget this is a government construction job because the government owns the $7.4 billion project, purchased last spring from Kinder Morgan Canada. It must address the NEB report, satisfy the legal conditions for consultation, and approve the expansion.

In the context of pre-election troubles, the timing is what the Los Angeles weather broadcasters call the air conditions created by the combination of geography and gridlock: unhelpful.

The project is not likely to help politically. It is unlikely to get Rachel Notley reelected premier of Alberta, so it is likely to set upon Trudeau the more combative presence of Jason Kenney following a May election. It is unlikely to help the federal Liberals elect anyone in Alberta and may help them unelect an MP or two in the Lower Mainland.

A February to forget is unfortunately for Trudeau one he will long remember.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.