CALGARY – The increasingly divisive debate over pipelines, with the economic benefits and environmental concerns they carry, has been selected as The Canadian Press business story of the year.
In an annual survey of newsrooms across the country, pipeline development edged out another politically charged issue – real estate – by a single vote, a reflection of how the two stories competed for attention throughout 2016.
The year saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempt to strike a grand bargain of sorts: approving Kinder Morgan’s expansion of Trans Mountain and the replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 while also pushing ahead with a national carbon price and rejecting Enbridge’s Northern Gateway.
“In a debate between economy and the environment, the Trudeau government’s decision has not only huge political implications, but has sparked debate and protests over the rights of indigenous peoples that tarnishes the Liberal brand,” said Paul Samyn, editor at the Winnipeg Free Press.
The decision to green-light the Kinder Morgan proposal, which would see an existing pipeline that runs from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., nearly triple its capacity, was Trudeau’s most controversial.
The project has triggered protests, sparked legal challenges and tested federal-provincial relationships, themes that are likely to dominate the headlines next year.
“This is the year in which the rubber hit the road,” said Benjamin Dachis, associate director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute. “This is the culmination of years of policy debate, of policy change.”
From coast to coast, the question over whether to build more pipelines to access markets abroad confronted mayors, premiers and community leaders at almost every turn.
The review of the Energy East Pipeline also made news when it was aborted in August over concerns about conflict of interest involving the panel overseeing TransCanada’s application to build the project. If built, the development would see crude shipped from Alberta to as far east as Saint John, N.B.
Another pipeline that appeared to be on its deathbed a year ago – the Keystone XL project – was given new life following Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the U.S. last month. Trudeau said earlier this month he remains supportive of the pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to Nebraska.
The hot housing sector also earned the consideration of business newsroom leaders as politicians on every level took action in a bid to address prices that have spiralled to dizzying heights, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto.
“Is there a more important issue facing Canada’s economy?” asked Noah Zivitz, managing editor of Business News Network.
“Real estate has served as a pillar while other economic drivers have fallen by the wayside. Yet that reliance on housing has only inflamed fears over household debt levels, barriers to entry, foreign investment, and the risk of a correction.”
Real estate worries also resonated outside Canada’s largest cities.
“Toronto and Vancouver may be the focus of discussion at a national level, and rightly so, but rising prices and limited choice are having an impact in markets across the country,” said Ron DeRuyter, business editor at the Waterloo Region Record.
“Many Canadians fear they will not be able to buy a home; others feel bullied into paying more than they should pay. And the higher prices go, the more the spectre of a crash looms.”
Governments tried to intervene without rocking the foundations of the market.
In B.C., Premier Christy Clark instituted a surprise 15 per cent tax on foreign buyers in Metro Vancouver and the city moved ahead with a tax on vacant homes. At the federal level, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau tightened mortgage rules.
Pipelines garnered 26 per cent of the ballots cast, with real estate getting 22 per cent.
Other headline-grabbing stories circled back to oil and the environment, with the carbon tax and fires in Fort McMurray, Alta., both tied at 15 per cent. There were 27 votes in all.
“The disruption to production in the oilsands during the Fort McMurray wildfire gave Canadians a better appreciation of the important role the massive energy development plays in the national economy,” said Kevin Usselman, news director at 660 NEWS CFFR in Calgary.
The carbon tax became entwined with resource development as both Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said it was a critical policy to allow for the responsible expansion of pipelines.
Dachis at the C.D. Howe Institute said governments showed they were willing to make tough choices on energy, but failed to devise policies needed to increase the supply of housing.
“The common thread of what the government has done, governments have done … when it comes to carbon pricing and pipelines, is that they’ve done things that people think are politically harmful, but are in the best interest of the country,” said Dachis.
“But that’s not happening in zoning, or housing development.”
Douglas Cudmore, senior editor of business, innovation and justice at the Toronto Star, said the carbon pricing story was important because of its far-reaching impact.
“If there’s one story (dull as it might seem to readers) that could change not just the way we live but the way our kids and grandkids live, it’s governments finally being brave enough to get serious about carbon emissions.”
– by Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press