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The Pipeline Plan that Rattled BC, Explained

Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal struck a deep nerve, and its story continues this election.

By Geoff Dembicki, 4 May 2013, TheTyee.ca

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Pipeline photo via Shutterstock.

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[Editor's note: With voting day fast approaching, we look back on big issues that have driven debate in our province during the last 12 years of BC Liberal governance. What did B.C.'s leaders and opposition parties say and do on these major files? What are they saying now? What are the facts? Humbly offered here, a cure for political amnesia among candidates and media alike. Today, a primer on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.]

You'd be excused for assuming that NDP leader Adrian Dix was campaigning against the federal Conservatives during B.C.'s recent televised leaders' debate, and not his election rival, Liberal Premier Christy Clark, standing just to his right.

On oil pipelines and tankers, Dix framed the issue as a power struggle between Victoria and Ottawa -- one that he pledged to resolve in British Columbia's favour if elected on May 14.

How? Dix would "end the equivalency agreement with the federal government" on Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, thereby creating a situation, he claimed, where Ottawa would not "make our decisions about these pipelines."

Clark reminded viewers of the "five conditions" Enbridge would have to meet to win Liberal approval, and how she had stood her ground last fall, as she put it, against "all the other premiers" in Halifax who opposed them.

In effect: one front-running candidate for premier would stand up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on oil tankers and pipelines -- the other, to Canada's premiers.

No other 2013 B.C. election issue offers such a stark referendum on the authority of the provincial government. Then again, Enbridge's pipeline proposal is unlike most other political issues.

'Radical groups'

Enbridge's vision of a pipeline that would feed diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to an export terminal on B.C.'s west coast is about a decade old.

Yet in terms of public engagement, the story of Northern Gateway truly began on Jan. 9, 2012, when federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver delivered his "open letter" to Canadians.

His now-infamous address, issued just as Joint Review Panel hearings on the pipeline were set to begin, decried the "environmental and other radical groups" that "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda."

Oliver's letter elevated the stakes around Northern Gateway in three significant ways.

First, it turned the public hearings into a polarizing debate about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's vision for Canada: A decision between Enbridge's "nation-building" pipeline, and the oil sands crude that would fill it -- or an alternative, so-called "radical," environmental agenda.

Second, according to University of British Columbia professor George Hoberg, Oliver's letter pushed "many moderates who were offended by the style of the attacks into strong opponents of the pipeline."

And third, by suggesting all critics of Northern Gateway belonged to a monolithic "radical" movement, it strengthened the alliance between B.C. First Nations and the province's green groups.

That's not an alliance that should be taken for granted. The 2009 provincial election, after all, saw the environmental movement split between those in favour of run-of-river power projects, many of which are also supported by First Nations, and those opposed to them.

Nor are First Nations and green groups pursuing identical goals in their fight against Northern Gateway. Both agree that a pipeline rupture in B.C.'s heartland, or a tanker crash off the province's north coast, would be disastrous.

But Northern Gateway also provides First Nations a forum to discuss outstanding land claims, historical cultural grievances and their broader relationship with the Harper government.

'Very troubled'

In the weeks after Oliver's "open letter" appeared, The Tyee ran two in-depth stories explaining the deep roots of First Nations concerns.

One revealed how a years-old tree-cutting incident, as well as other cultural missteps by Enbridge, galvanized aboriginal opposition to the pipeline.

The other explained Northern Gateway's precarious legal position: exactly how First Nations intend to fight the project in court and why many believe their concerns are being ignored by federal decision-makers.

Then, on March 29, 2012, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled Bill C-38 in Parliament. Its 425 pages of legislation promised to cancel hundreds of environmental reviews, limit the powers of Canada's leading energy authority and withdraw the country from the Kyoto protocol.

"It is comprehensive, it is forward-looking, it is our government's major policy document," Flaherty reportedly said.

Bill C-38 also gave the federal government new powers to order the approval of such projects as Northern Gateway, West Coast Environmental Law noted, "even if the [Joint Review Panel] recommends against it."

Now, in addition to everything else, Enbridge's pipeline represented a test of Canadian democracy.

"We are very troubled," NDP leader Dix wrote in April to the Joint Review Panel, by federal government statements suggesting the outcome of the hearings "is predetermined."

Building the pipeline, he argued, would harm B.C.'s "economy, environment, and social and cultural fabric." Dix added: "Therefore [Northern Gateway] should not be permitted to proceed."

His letter was in effect a major strategic decision from B.C.'s Opposition party. The NDP not only staked out a clear position in the Enbridge debate. It also laid claim to all the perceived values -- environmental protection, aboriginal rights, democratic freedoms -- associated with that position.

Premier Clark, meanwhile, chose to remain officially neutral on Northern Gateway.

Polling numbers suggested British Columbians preferred Dix's approach. From April to July, the opposition leader's approval rating on the environment rose four percentage points, showed Angus Reid data (click here, and then here). Clark's rating fell two percentage points during the same time frame.

'Politically toxic'

It wasn't long before Clark's neutrality became difficult to justify. On July 10, 2012, American regulators released a scathing report about Enbridge's oil spill, two years earlier, into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

"Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured," said one high-ranking U.S. official.

The condemnation "produced a fundamental shift" in domestic opinion, Hoberg wrote, as leading political columnists in B.C. and elsewhere "declared the pipeline dead." He added: "Suddenly support for Enbridge was politically toxic."

Two weeks later, Clark officially abandoned her neutral position on Northern Gateway, declaring her Liberal government would only support the project if five conditions were first met.

Conditions one through four were uncontroversial: Enbridge must win the approval of federal regulators, take appropriate safety measures and meet any legal requirements vis-à-vis First Nations.

It was the fifth and final condition that led news coverage over the summer and into the fall: "We expect a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits [from Gateway] for our province," Clark said.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford immediately rejected the proposal. In no way would her province financially compensate B.C. to support Enbridge's pipeline. "It's certainly not a path I'm prepared to go down," Redford said at the time.

There were two problems with Clark's "fair share" strategy. One, because B.C. appears to lack legal authority to actually demand greater pipeline revenues, it made the Liberals seem weak.

And two, though Clark's strategy operated on a simple and compelling logic -- that the province should be compensated for taking environmental risks -- it also implied that core Liberal values could be bought for the right price.

'Frosty' meeting

An Angus-Reid poll from early August suggested that 43 per cent of British Columbians were "dissatisfied" with Clark's approach, compared to 27 per cent for Dix's outright rejection of Gateway.

(Interestingly, only about one-third of respondents were actually "satisfied" with either leader's position.)

By the end of the month, NDP views on Gateway had been framed more blatantly as a power struggle with Prime Minister Harper.

Dix's opposition party promised to withdraw the province from Northern Gateway's federally-appointed joint review panel hearings, and submit the project to a "made-in-B.C." review.

Clark continued to push her "fair share" bargaining position: First at the Halifax premier's meeting (where she claims to have "stood my ground" against other provincial leaders) and then culminating in a "frosty" meeting with Premier Redford last October.

Nevertheless, Alberta's energy sector would likely prefer Clark's Liberals retain political power on May 14, as opposed to their NDP rivals.

"You should be concerned about the risks posed by the election of a New Democratic Party government," read a January letter inviting business elites to a Calgary fundraiser for Clark.

No doubt a Jane Sterk victory would also pose "risks" to them -- her Green Party is promising an unconditional rejection of Northern Gateway. Less so B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins, who unequivocally supports it.

Yet Alberta's oil patch, and its boosters in Ottawa, won't know for sure what kind of pushback to expect from B.C. until May 24, only 10 days after the election, when the next premier will have to present an official position on Northern Gateway to the public hearings process.

That's when we'll start to see how much power B.C. truly has.  [Tyee]

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