After fighting a provincial election without taking a strong position for or against pipeline development in British Columbia, the new BC Liberal government has taken a clear stand against Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal.
"It is not clear from the evidence that NG will in fact be able to respond effectively to spills from the pipeline itself, or from tankers transporting diluted bitumen from the proposed Kitimat terminal," said the provincial government's 99-page final argument submitted to National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel. "'Trust me' is not good enough in this case."
The position is consistent with five conditions Premier Christy Clark set out last year for the province to support pipeline projects, but comes as a surprise to those who thought the BC Liberals' "maybe" really meant "yes."
A Postmedia story quoted John Carruthers, Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway president, saying in a May 30 interview that the company was heartened by the re-election of Clark's government.
"What we understood from the results of the election was that (British Columbians) want a strong economy, they want the jobs the strong economy provides, and they want the social services that the tax revenue from the strong economy can provide," he said. "But they also want to make sure it isn't done at the expense of the environment, so we are fully aligned with that perspective in terms of providing significant opportunities, in terms of procurement, jobs, tax revenue and ensuring that the environment is protected."
Still working to meet conditions, says Enbridge
The day of the province's announcement, Enbridge responded to a request for comment with bullet points to be attributed to Janet Holder, the company's executive vice president western access, that played down what it meant.
"Today, the Government of British Columbia reaffirmed its commitment to the five conditions it has put forward as a condition for pipeline development," she said. "The five conditions cannot be fully met until the end of the Joint Review Panel process. We are working hard to meet the conditions and earn the confidence of the government and the people of B.C."
Holder reaffirmed a commitment to the project meeting "the highest possible safety and environmental standards anywhere in the world."
The province's conditions for considering heavy-oil pipelines included: successful completion of the environmental review process; "world-leading" oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems both on land and on the water; addressing aboriginal and treaty rights; and ensuring the province receives a "fair share" of the financial benefits, reflecting the risk to the province.
Art Sterritt, the executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said the province's position is significant. "It would appear Northern Gateway has about had it."
He did not, however, find the Clark government's decision surprising. "Unlike a lot of people, I had a little more faith in this government," he said. "A lot of others jumped over the first four conditions and assumed she was for sale. I never bought that."
Sterritt said he's been a federal Liberal Party member for 40 years and a provincial member for a long time. When Clark ran for the leadership, he supported her because of her own Liberal roots and he believed she had what it would take to win, he said.
"We've been talking to people inside the party for a while and we were pretty sure this was going to be the end result," he said. "When something like this happens, I'm not afraid to say the party I belong to has made the right decision."
Province made right decision: Coastal First Nations
There was no guarantee of safety on the pipeline route, at the terminal where tanker ships would be filled, or on the ocean, Sterritt said. "The reality is the environment in B.C. is at risk."
The province's decision is in line with the CFN's criticism of the proposal, he said. "We're happy with it," he said. "It reflects reality. The reality is Enbridge hasn't met the environmental conditions necessary to move forward with this project."
The project hasn't met the condition on aboriginal and treaty rights either, he said.
The Joint Review Panel will make a recommendation on the Northern Gateway proposal after it hears final statements on June 17 and 18. "It doesn't have the information it needs to make an informed decision," said Sterritt.
The B.C. government has sent a strong signal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's federal government, he said. "I think the premier has done the smart thing," he said. "I think we're on the right track here ... It's a good day. It's a very good day for us."
Moving ahead with the project would jeopardize 30,000 jobs on the coast that depend on a healthy environment, added Sterritt, noting that some 80 per cent of British Columbians support keeping oil tankers off the coast.
Panel's decision still to come
The province's questions about the Northern Gateway pipeline's proposed route and the company's spill response capacity were not satisfactorily answered during the hearings, said B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake in a press release.
"The panel must determine if it is appropriate to grant a certificate for the project as currently proposed on the basis of a promise to do more study and planning after the certificate is granted," said Lake. "Our government does not believe that a certificate should be granted before these important questions are answered."
The province's press release said the position on Northern Gateway does not amount to a rejection of all heavy-oil projects. "All proposals -- such as Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion or the Kitimat Clean project -- will be judged on their merits," it said. "The Province's five conditions would still apply."
If the BC Liberals were serious about stopping Northern Gateway, they would not have signed away decision-making authority in 2010, said NDP Leader Adrian Dix in an emailed statement.
"We know Ottawa continues to support the project, so saying 'no' today is a toothless gesture and the Liberals know it," said Dix. "The BC Liberals avoided taking a position on this project for years. Even with this submission, the final say rests with Stephen Harper."
Dix said the NDP has been clearly and consistently opposed to the Northern Gateway proposal.
Environmental groups who have vocally opposed the pipeline proposal released statements supporting the province's position.
"Days like this give meaning to 50 years of environmental activism," said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada. "Words cannot express how much I admire the activists and First Nations who made this decision possible."
"I think people on the coast and along the Fraser and Skeena rivers can breathe a sigh of relief," said Will Horter, the Dogwood Initiative's executive director. "The government's detailed submission clearly concludes that Enbridge hasn't adequately addressed concerns about oil spills and therefore the project is not in B.C.'s interest. We agree."
The federal government could still try to force the project on B.C. based on the promises Enbridge has made to improve it, but with the public review process over, any such changes would have to be considered behind closed doors, he said.
"After the backlash over the HST, we're not expecting either Ottawa or Victoria to make backroom changes to their position on such a controversial proposal."