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03/08/2018 11:36 EST | Updated 03/08/2018 11:36 EST

2 Years Later, Trudeau's Alberta Pipeline Bargain Doesn't Seem So Sweet

It could be a deal that hurts Trudeau's electoral chances and takes his international reputation as global good guy with it.

Chris Helgren / Reuters
Signs warning of the presence of oil pipelines are seen on a fence at "Refinery Row" outside facilities run by Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and Suncor in Sherwood Park near Edmonton, Alta.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he had just been elected, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was a national political darling.

At the time, Notley was the first Albertan premier that one could credibly say believed in the climate crisis, women's equality and Indigenous reconciliation. When Trudeau came to power, Notley was a breath of fresh Albertan air and a much simpler ally then the alternatives.

It was under these "sunny skies" that the Kinder Morgan bargain was struck behind closed doors. Even though Trudeau admitted the review process was broken, he gave Rachel Notley a pipeline in exchange for support of a national climate plan. At the time, it seemed a win-win for both of them. Notley could claim to have succeeded where Conservative leaders had failed, and Trudeau would get support from the nation's most climate-regressive province and score a major policy plank under his belt at the same time.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, meets with then-Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on Nov. 29, 2016.

It seemed like a good deal. The risks seemed pretty small and the political upside seemed rosy.

Two years later, the bargain doesn't seem so sweet, and it could be a deal that hurts Trudeau's electoral chances and takes his international reputation as global good guy with it.

So, what's changed?

Trudeau greatly underestimated the resistance the pipeline project has against it.

First, banking on an NDP dynasty in Alberta seems risky. Despite Notley's full-throated pipeline propaganda, poll after poll shows the NDP losing handily to Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party in the next election. If Trudeau's pipeline calculation is wrong and Notley loses the next election, he will face a leader in Alberta that aggressively opposes his agenda. He will also have torched whatever support the Liberals may have had on the West Coast in the process.

Secondly, Trudeau greatly underestimated the resistance the pipeline project has against it. A recent opinion poll showed that close to a majority of British Columbians oppose the project. Opposition is strongest among women, and people in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island (the two areas where the Liberals hoped to make inroads during the next election). The poll also showed that of the people who oppose the pipeline, one in four were willing to engage in an act of civil disobedience to stop the project, which equates to a few hundred thousand people. In politics, intensity matters and I've never seen that kind of support for civil disobedience.

Ben Nelms / Reuters
Protesters gather to voice their opposition to Canada's decision to approve Kinder Morgan's pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific coast in Vancouver, B.C., Nov. 29, 2016.

Forget the war of the rosés, Trudeau is headed to another war in the woods — and with the strong Indigenous leadership at the helm of pipeline resistance, he faces what could become a national reconciliation disaster. The way the world viewed Indigenous rights changed after Standing Rock, and that cannot be undone.

Globally, nothing could destroy Trudeau's progressive image quicker than a picture of Indigenous elders peacefully defending their lands and waters being arrested by Canadian armed forces, yet that's exactly where this battle is headed.

Trudeau has a way out, but it's not in backing a government that isn't likely to be around next year.

Already, over 23,000 people have signed up to do "whatever it takes" to stop the pipeline. Members of the Tsleil Waututh have called for a mass action on March 10, and things are just going to get hotter from there.

Indigenous leaders, mayors and even a federal member of Parliament are willing to put their bodies on the line to stop this project. With each arrest, the headlines will multiply, which would be a blow to Trudeau on the world stage.

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Trudeau has a way out, but it's not in backing a government that isn't likely to be around next year. If the prime minister wants to keep his international reputation squeaky clean and live up to his own promises, the best way to do that is to let B.C.'s planned scientific reviews move forward, the court cases be heard, and crumbing pipeline economics run their course.

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