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Trudeau takes on DiCaprio over oil and gas sector

So the mayor of Montreal, which dumped raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River last fall, wants nothing to do with the environmental risks of a crude oil pipeline skirting the city.

To be clear, Denis Coderre is opposed to TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline that would bring Western Canadian crude to an oil refinery and the under-utilized port at Saint John, N.B., but not Enbridge’s recently reversed Line 9 that delivers 300,000 barrels a day of crude to a pair of refineries in the country’s second-largest city.

It’s the same sort of political chutzpah that saw U.S. President Barack Obama reject TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and permit exports of U.S. crude oil for the first time in decades.

It also reinforces the adage that all politics is local.

Coderre’s stand against Energy East came days after Burnaby’s mayor called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the federal review of Kinder Morgan’s proposed $6.8-billion expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to suburban Vancouver and highlights the growing voice and political clout of municipalities from coast to coast in Canada.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has staked much of his political reputation on opposing the oil industry while Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi has been pressed into service as a defender of the energy industry that is headquartered in this city. Saint John Mayor Mel Norton has been a proponent of Energy East.

It’s not just big cities. In 2014, the people of Kitimat, B.C., voted in a plebiscite to oppose Enbridge’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline that would reach tidewater at their town.

Nenshi has been among those calling for more powers for cities in recent years.

The influence of municipalities in these policy debates — and regulatory hearings — that traditionally played out at the federal and provincial level is uncertain but the clout of mayors and the connection to local voters on issues that impact them where they call home can’t be denied in the era where social licence to operate is a murky but undeniable force.

In Alberta, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean interpreted the statement from Coderre and other Montreal-area mayors as a sign Premier Rachel Notley’s “new carbon tax to get the social license for pipelines is failing.”

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was among those who called for transfer payments from oil-producing provinces to be cut for provinces that won’t support infrastructure projects. 

At the annual Council of the Federation meeting last July in St. John’s, NL, the provincial premiers endorsed a national energy strategy that “provides the foundation for provinces and territories to work together on energy priorities of ensuring Canada is a recognized international leader in sustainable and secure energy production, supply and transportation.”

But that didn’t factor in the more than 4,000 municipalities in Canada. 

Last week, Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan urged Trudeau to suspend the “deeply flawed” National Energy Board hearing on the Trans Mountain pipeline that has its terminus in his city while the federal government makes changes to the regulatory review process promised in last year’s the election campaign.

Nenshi — responding to Trudeau’s comments at World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland that Canada was “resourceful” country — made the point “we are a resource-based economy.”

“Yes, a social licence is required,” said Nenshi, who was also in Davos. “But we also need to see action from this federal government about what’s happening in Canada.”

He backs Energy East and plans to triple capacity on Trans Mountain to 890,000 barrels a day. 

The federal government has authority over any areas of the law that affect the entire country — including interprovincial trade — while municipalities are only responsible for the administration of their area. All their power is delegated to them by their provincial governments.

Energy East is a $15.7-billion project that would run 4,600 kilometres from Alberta to New Brunswick and pass under about 1o0 kilometres of land in Montreal and its suburbs. In November, TransCanada abandoned plans for a export facility in Quebec over opposition to the threat to beluga whale habitat in the St. Lawrence River.

Coderre, who agreed to dump 8 billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River for four days as a major sewer line was repaired, said the environmental risks of the 1.1-million barrel-a-day pipeline outweigh any economic benefits. 

The debate over federal and provincial responsibilities has long been a staple of politics in Canada, but when cities have bigger populations and economies than some provinces the addition of municipalities to strained intergovernmental relationship will only complicate issues even more. 

With the new actors on the stage, Notley’s hope for even one “drama-free” pipeline looks increasingly unlikely.