Conservatives join NDP to demand a study of Trans Mountain in federal committee

Opposition MPs are joining forces to demand an examination of the exorbitant cost to taxpayers and climate impacts of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.

Last week, NDP MP Charlie Angus put forward a motion to call top Liberal ministers before the federal natural resources committee and grill them about how TMX costs spun out of control and the federal government’s plans to sell the pipeline.

If the motion passes, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will be among those called to testify over five days about TMX’s impact on Canada’s climate targets, how the cost to taxpayers soared, and government plans to sell TMX.

The three opposition parties are united, although the Conservatives and NDP committee members acknowledge they are still on different sides of the climate change issue. The committee was suspended Monday part-way through a debate over an amendment by Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs proposing all other work be dropped for the TMX study.

The Liberals don’t want to pause the ongoing study on Canada’s electricity grid.

Bloc Quebecois MP Mario Simard said Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux should also testify — alongside Freeland and Wilkinson — about his office’s report on TMX’s profitability, or lack thereof. Previous reporting by Canada’s National Observer revealed confidential reports the federal government uses to argue the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is commercially viable are based on the unrealistic assumption the pipeline will operate for 100 years. The PBO looked at these reports but said the 100-year methodology wasn’t realistic — instead, they used a 40-year timeframe to assess TMX.

Julie Dabrusin, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, said she isn’t opposed to doing the TMX study. But Dabrusin added there’s “no really good reason” why the committee should pause its electricity grid study to undertake a backward-looking TMX study where “there's nothing new happening.”

“We're not going to be talking about anything that's going to be massive and urgent to change right now in the course of this study,” said Dabrusin earlier. Instead, the committee should remain focused on the “very urgent” and “necessary” study of how Canada can move to a cleaner electricity grid. Three other Liberal MPs also argued this point. But Angus disagrees.

“Given the fact that the TMX is actually now up and running and we have had no clarity from the government about what they're going to do with selling it, we've had no clarity in terms of what it's going to do to the emissions cap. We need to make this a priority,” Angus told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview on May 27.

Conservative MP Jeremy Patzer noted that while he disagrees with the NDP on a great deal, right now they both want the same thing: to get to the bottom of the federal government’s plan to sell TMX to avoid any “backroom deals.”

The government intends to sell TMX, so “obviously, they've got an idea who they're going to sell it to,” said Angus. He wants to know the sale terms and impact to taxpayers before the pipeline is sold and it's too late.

This is why the study is urgent, said Patzer and Angus.

“Some of us might be approaching the ‘why’ we want to get to the bottom of it from different sides of the issue, but nevertheless, we need to get to the bottom of it. I think we need to prioritize it,” said Patzer.

The NDP and Conservatives diverge on how TMX will impact Canada’s climate targets and the federal government’s long-promised cap on oil and gas sector emissions, expected this year.

“There's no credible pathway to reducing emissions once TMX is pumping 900,000 barrels a day,” said Angus. Conservative MP Earl Dreeshen, on the other hand, spoke about the contributions of TMX’s hydrocarbons to the world.

Canada’s oil and gas emissions are still on the rise, as is production of crude bitumen and synthetic crude production.

Angus said “you can't put an emissions cap on, if you're going to massively increase production. That's like saying you're going to drink your way to sobriety.”

Despite the International Energy Agency warning governments against investing in expensive, planet-warming fossil fuel infrastructure, the Liberals decided “to lock Canada in for bitumen processing in the long term, no matter what it meant for the economy, no matter what it meant for changing global markets and no matter what it meant for the environment and the crisis that we're facing,” Angus has earlier said.

“We have to understand why so much money was so casually spent on a project that had no business case,” he said, referring to both the federal government’s decision to buy TMX and fact the price tag got too high for its losses to be recouped through tolls charges to oil shippers.

As the price tag climbed higher, the federal government continued to approve loan guarantees to help Trans Mountain secure financing from Canada’s big banks to complete construction. These loan guarantees basically assure banks that if Trans Mountain can’t repay the loan, taxpayers will. The federal Finance Department has consistently refused to answer direct questions about the impact these loan guarantees could have on taxpayers.

Conservative MPs agree that pouring over $34 billion into TMX wasn’t a good move: “We can think of a lot of things that $34 billion could have done for Canadians besides subsidizing a pipeline that could have, should have and would have been built by the private sector,” said Patzer.

Stubbs emphasized the objective of this study and its outcomes must be to make taxpayers whole.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer