A big part of Justin Trudeau’s political success is his ability to let his audience project onto him what they want to see.

You want climate action: Liberals fully support the Paris climate agreement aiming to keep warming well below 2 degrees (annoying math nerd note: achieving this requires that we stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure like coal mines and tar sands oil pipelines).

You want Indigenous reconciliation: Liberals support the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent as laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (caveat: unless consent is withheld from something we really want, like three new pipelines).

You want to expand tar sands production: Unlike Conservatives, Liberals will get pipelines built (disregard the fact that a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels by mid-century puts a dent in pipelines whose economic rationale depends on markets for high-cost, high-carbon oil expanding over the next 40-50 years).

One of the beautiful things about using Canada’s freedom of information laws is that they allows us to peek behind the talking points and see what are the real priorities driving policy.

In this respect, there’s a lot of interesting information in Global Affairs Canada’s briefing notes, obtained by Greenpeace under federal Access to Information legislation. The memos outline the Trudeau government’s strategy vis-à-vis the Trump administration on energy and environmental policy. Equally interesting, however, is what isn’t said (hint: the words “climate change” don’t make an appearance).

One memo is for a March 9, 2017 meeting between Andrew Leslie (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs) and representatives of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). The other is for a May 30, 2017 meeting between Leslie and TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL and defeated Energy East pipelines. That meeting was likely with TransCanada CEO Russ Girling; while the name of the TransCanada official was redacted, the briefing note indicates that this person “was present in the Oval Office during the [KXL] announcement”.

Taken together, these newly released memos show the Trudeau government treating the election of Donald Trump as “positive news”. They expose an embrace of oil companies as a lobbying partner that bears a much closer resemblance to the Harper government’s secret Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy than Trudeau’s election platform. And they illustrate an outdated view that equates energy with oil, ignoring the rapidly expanding renewable energy sector.

You can read them for yourself, but here’s some highlights of what is in (and out) of the memos.


Trump as a positive development:  The memo claims that “the swearing in of a new administration in the United States that recognizes the strategic importance of Canada’s role in North American energy security is, so far, positive news for the Canadian energy sector.”


Climate change: Cross-border energy cooperation under the Obama administration went far beyond oil and included a commitment to a “climate test” for the Keystone XL pipeline (which it ultimately failed). To view the Trump administration’s approach to energy policy, based in unabashed climate denial, as an improvement over the previous administration represents a very narrow bias in favour of the oil industry.

The economic and environmental opportunities offered by renewable energy: This framing excludes renewable energy sources from the energy sector entirely, which is perhaps a fair representation of the Trump government’s view but should not be the view of the Government of Canada if it is serious about its climate commitments.


Joint lobbying campaign with oil industry: The Trudeau government appears to be continuing with the Harper government Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy approach, which worked with the oil industry to expand oil exports by undermining clean fuel policy measures in the U.S. and Europe. The CAPP briefing note states that CAPP will volunteer their services to help promote the Keystone pipeline.

The briefing note recommends that this offer be accepted.


The oil lobby’s role in the attack on environmental policy: CAPP’s counterpart in the United States (the American Petroleum Institute, with whom CAPP shares many members) is one of the primary advocates and strongest supporters of Trump’s environmental deregulatory agenda.  The Government of Canada could ask CAPP to reach out to the Trump administration to support climate measures, but climate change is not mentioned in the briefing note and none of the talking points or responsive lines ask for support to defend environmental measures.

Liberal election platform: This one-sided focus on expanding oil exports contradicts the Liberal Party’s platform in the 2015 election, which stated: “We will work with the United States and Mexico to develop an ambitious North American clean energy and environment agreement. North America can and should be the world’s most efficient and responsible energy producer. Key goals of this agreement should include the continental coordination of climate mitigation and resilience policies, as well as the appropriate alignment of international negotiation positions.”


Unqualified support for Keystone XL: The Trudeau government is lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline even though it acknowledges "major resistance" in South Dakota and Nebraska over the expropriation of private land, the recognition of Indigenous interests and the potential risk of environmental damage.

In the TransCanada memo, it states “We welcome the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and that it will not be subject to the Presidential Memorandum [on domestic steel content]”. It goes on to note the opposition from landowners concerned over the expropriation of private land, environmental groups concerned over oil spills and Indigenous groups on both sides of the border who “fear the risk to sacred sites, impacts to their hunting and fishing grounds, and/or negative impacts to the environment and public health.” 


Trudeau government’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): The Trudeau government has expressed its full support for UNDRIP, which includes a commitment to obtaining the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous people for projects that affect their traditional territories or rights. The government is acknowledging that the KXL project does not have consent, yet is still working with TransCanada to push it through.

Climate impacts: The Obama administration explicitly rejected the Keystone XL project on climate grounds, yet the words “climate change” do not appear in either memo on the topic. Trump’s KXL approval was the first and highest-profile expression of his administration’s commitment to ignoring climate change, yet the Global Affairs is notably silent on climate when discussing the project with the lobbyists who have the greatest influence south of the border.

Trudeau may talk the talk on climate change, but if he’s serious about the commitments he’s made to turn Canada into a clean energy leader, he’ll need his actions to match step with his words. Keeping CAPP close, as Harper did, and missing opportunities to push a bold climate agenda forward means Canada risks getting left behind in the en transition.