Opinion

Will Kinder Morgan Surprise BC Liberals or NDP in May Election?

Both parties face risks if pipeline emerges as defining election issue.

By Bill Tieleman 6 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532.

One of British Columbia’s two major parties is going to get a “Kinder Morgan surprise” in the May 2017 election — but will it be the BC Liberals or the New Democrats?

Both parties are taking risky courses of action after Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to approve the $6.8-billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline to dramatically increase the flow of Alberta oil sands bitumen to Asia on tankers sailing out of Metro Vancouver.

On the one hand, the possibility of environmental devastation on land or sea, billions in clean up costs and the impact of burning oil on global climate change.

On the other, thousands more jobs, increased economic activity, billions in higher government revenue for social programs and the transition to renewable energy in the long term.

Both compelling arguments — and the two parties are taking opposing positions, which may leave the choice to voters.

BC NDP leader John Horgan is clear — no to Kinder Morgan.

“My constituents don’t want to see more tankers, I don’t want to see more tankers,” Horgan says.

BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark is almost clear — yes to Kinder Morgan if her “five conditions” for proceeding are met. And she’s strongly hinting they will be.

“Almost all the conditions have been met and significant progress has been made on all of them,” Clark says. “We’ve said that these conditions are a path to get to ‘yes’ for any project from Alberta that’s proposed and that would move through British Columbia.” 

So who has calculated risk best and acted decisively to win?

Impossible to say yet, because Kinder Morgan may not be the key election issue in a province where health care, education, housing affordability, child poverty and other concerns may weigh more heavily with voters than a pipeline that has already received key federal approval, with construction not starting till after the election.

But with environmental and many First Nations groups and Metro Vancouver municipalities all opposed, and some promising legal action, protests and civil disobedience, Kinder Morgan could also easily be the dominant issue.

(To be transparent, my strategy and communications firm has clients in labour, business and non-profits on both sides of the Kinder Morgan issue; the company is not a client nor has it ever been. My views are my own and clients have not been consulted on this column.)

The BC NDP already has painful Kinder Morgan scars from the 2013 provincial election when all polls and pundits expected it to romp to victory.

The ultimate, brutal irony would be if the BC NDP is on the wrong side again in opposing Kinder Morgan, losing two elections over the pipeline without one shovel in the ground.

But if the New Democrats are right and the BC Liberals lose, it will be poetic justice and revenge served up cold.

In the last election campaign, on Earth Day, April 22, 2013, then-NDP leader Adrian Dix announced a “Kinder Morgan surprise.” Dix reversed the NDP’s commitment not to take a position on the project until after the company filed an official proposal detailing its plans.

"They haven’t actually made an application," Dix said on April 11 to Voice of BC television show host Vaughn Palmer, also political columnist for the Vancouver Sun. “I think as a matter of principle, you should actually see what the application is before you address it.”

Then 11 days later that policy was ruptured as Dix came out against the pipeline expansion.

“We do not expect Vancouver to become a major oil export port, as appears to be suggested in what Kinder Morgan is suggesting to the province. I don’t see that transformation as being the right approach for our economy or our port,” Dix said in a Kamloops announcement that surprised the media, voters and even his own MLAs.

“Of course we have to wait and see a formal application,” Dix said.

But, he added, “it’s fair to say that our position is pretty clear. We do not expect Vancouver to become a major oil export port.”

The BC Liberals and hard-hat wearing, job-talking Clark pounced on the Kinder Morgan issue. On election night, the Liberals — up to 17 per cent behind in the polls when the campaign began, with more than 60 per cent of voters saying it was time for a new government — had won another majority.

Kinder Morgan was not the only factor. The NDP strangely refused to run negative or “contrast” advertising detailing the BC Liberals’ record and failings. And the party’s campaign inexplicably failed to monitor swing ridings with tracking polling so it could get early warnings if voters started moving away — warnings that might have saved the day.

But Kinder Morgan was, in my view, and for other political observers the most significant factor.

It allowed the BC Liberals to paint Dix as a “flip-flopper” and create a clichéd but effective “weather vane” TV ad that portrayed him changing direction as the wind shifted.

The results were devastating for the NDP. Dix resigned as leader and its caucus was resigned to another depressing term in opposition, making it 16 years in political purgatory by the time the 2017 election unfolds.

So the stakes could hardly be higher for both Horgan and the NDP.

A September Mainstreet Research poll gave some hope to the New Democrats, showing them ahead of the BC Liberals by five points among decided and leaning voters, 38 per cent to 33 per cent

And details on how each party’s voters feel about Kinder Morgan that was made exclusively available to me on request earlier this year shows why BC NDP leader John Horgan likely decided to go all-in on opposition to the project, just as Dix did, with hopes for much better results.

The Mainstreet Research poll of 2,207 British Columbians in September found 43 per cent opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project and 42 per cent in favour, with 15 per cent not sure.

But when you look more closely, the picture changes.

Only 13 per cent of NDP voters strongly approve of the pipeline expansion plan, while another 16 per cent somewhat approve, for 29 per cent support.

But 47 per cent of NDP voters say they strongly disapprove of the project, with 13 per cent somewhat disapproving, for a significant total of 60 per cent against Kinder Morgan. Twelve per cent weren’t sure.

With those numbers, it would be foolhardy to piss in the wind and strongly support the pipeline. On the other hand, 29 per cent of NDP voters support the Kinder Morgan project, so a definitive position against it risks their backing.

The BC Liberals also face possible trouble with Kinder Morgan, but their supporters split almost in way almost opposite to NDP backers.

Kinder Morgan is strongly approved of by 48 per cent of BC Liberal voters, with 18 per cent more somewhat approving — a total of 66 per cent.

Nine per cent of Liberal backers strongly disapprove of the pipeline plan and another 14 per cent somewhat disapprove, for 23 per cent not in favour. Ten per cent weren’t sure.

As one might expect, 91 per cent of Green Party voters strongly or somewhat disapprove of the pipeline project while 58 per cent of BC Conservative Party supporters are strongly or somewhat in favour, while another 24 per cent are not sure.

That leaves the NDP likely hoping to pick up Green voters opposed to Kinder Morgan by arguing only the New Democrats can form government and stop the pipeline.

An Insights West poll in August of 827 British Columbians found similar party differences — 69 per cent of those who voted BC NDP in 2013 were strongly or somewhat opposed to Kinder Morgan, while 61 per cent of BC Liberal voters in that election were strongly or somewhat in favour.

So the polling clearly indicates why the parties have taken opposite sides on Kinder Morgan, but it also shows the significant risks for each of them in potentially alienating their own voters in the provincial election. In a very close contest, the consequences would be severe.

The NDP is potentially risking the support of 29 per cent of its voters who think Kinder Morgan is definitely or likely a good project — and that could have serious consequences in non-urban and suburban ridings with blue collar voters, union or non-union, who are more concerned with jobs and the economy than the pipeline’s possible impact on the environment.

That could affect the outcome in towns like Kamloops, where the party forming government has won the seat in every provincial election since 1903. Kamloops was split into two ridings in 1991 — Kamloops-North Thompson and Kamloops-South Thompson — and the BC Liberals have held both of them since 2001.

In 2013 the NDP lost both ridings badly, Kamloops-North Thompson by 3,000 votes or 13 per cent and Kamloops-South Thompson by almost 6,000 votes or 22 per cent.

And in critical suburban battleground ridings like Surrey-Fleetwood, the BC Liberals’ Peter Fassbender pulled off an upset over NDP incumbent MLA Jagrup Brar by just 200 votes.

Other suburban ridings show a similar intense but losing fight for the NDP in 2013.

In Port Moody-Coquitlam, the BC Liberals took back a seat stolen by the NDP in a 2012 byelection, when popular former Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini won by only 438 votes.

In Delta North, the BC Liberals bested the NDP by just 204 votes and in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows the BC Liberals won by 621 votes or under three per cent.

So the stakes of being right or wrong on Kinder Morgan are huge for both parties if even a few hundred voters believe the pipeline or the larger “jobs and economy” issue are the most important to vote on — or alternatively if protecting the environment and fighting climate change are more crucial.

The issue of Kinder Morgan itself is particularly thorny for strategists from both parties, because there are actually three important but distinct issues at play.

The first concern is the pipeline itself that would run between the oil sands and the existing Burnaby Westridge Marine Terminal.

A rupture could, in the worst-case scenario, cause enormous environmental damage in pristine wilderness. And in areas that are hard to reach, complicating the task of locating and stopping the leak, recovering the oil and cleaning up the damage.

Kinder Morgan has experienced spills along its existing pipeline in recent years, according to the Wilderness Committee and Trans Mountain itself, which is required by the National Energy Board to report all spills greater than 1.5 cubic meters or about 9.5 barrels.

Since the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline was built in 1956 there have been 82 reported spills, with 69.5 per cent occurring at pump stations or terminals where the company says there are “monitoring and spill containment systems that are rigorously maintained and meet NEB standards.”

The most infamous spill was in Burnaby in 2007 and occurred when an excavator operated by a contractor punctured the pipeline, resulting in a major leak of 210,000 litres of crude oil that forced 250 residents to evacuate and damaged 11 homes.

Kinder Morgan, the contractor and an engineering firm all pled guilty to a charge under the Environmental Management Act and paid fines and made contributions to wildlife protection totalling $150,000 each. Kinder Morgan also paid an additional voluntary $100,000 for workshops on safe digging.

But a B.C. Provincial Court judge also ruled the spill was “an accident” and that “This is not a situation where pollution was let out for profit.”

Kinder Morgan vigorously defends its record, saying that while no spill is acceptable, it follows all reporting and spill cleanup laws.

And it argues that spills along the pipeline are rare.

“The remaining 30.5 per cent of Trans Mountain’s spills have occurred along the pipeline, with 21 incidents related to releases of crude oil from the pipeline,” the company says. “Of these spills, only nine exceeded the reporting threshold of 1.5 cubic metres — with just three of those nine occurring in the last 35 years.”

“In all of these circumstances, Trans Mountain deployed its emergency response and spill management procedures,” it states on its website.

Acceptable risk? It obviously is for the National Energy Board and the federal Liberal government which both approved the pipeline twinning project — with 157 conditions.

And no significant resource extraction operation is without risk, including many operating everyday in the port of Vancouver.

The second serious concern is an oil tanker accident, whether a serious grounding that leaked bitumen or an actual sinking, would be incredibly devastating to water, shoreline and wildlife and be recovery of the bitumen and restoration would be extremely expensive and difficult.

The Wilderness Committee claims that there have been 14.8 major oil spills per year in the past five years worldwide, up from the average 3.2 per year over the past 37 years.

But the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, a not-for-profit organization representing ship owners and insurers, says that since 2010 there has been an average 1.8 large spills per year.

And Kinder Morgan states there have been no oil tanker spills by ships leaving Burnaby in 60 years of operating.

The company also says that the current five tankers per month that exit the Burnaby terminal loaded with oil would increase to 34 as it triples the capacity of the pipeline to 890,000 barrels per day from 300,000 per day.

So Kinder Morgan and supporters argue that since Metro Vancouver has been shipping oil without accident for 60 years, increasing the tanker traffic by sevenfold does not change the perfect record or risk factor.

The third concern is much broader — the impact of extracting, exporting, refining and consuming oil sands bitumen on global climate change.

That the Earth’s temperature is rising is an undeniable fact — 2016 is expected by the United Nations to be the hottest year on record, meaning 16 of the hottest years ever were in this century.

However, Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley argues the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion will diversify markets for oil, not increase production above current levels.

“This does not increase the amount of oil that’s produced,” Notley told CBC Radio. “It simply makes sure that we get better value for it as we sell it, and then we take that value and we convert that into the work we’re doing to reposition our economy as a more progressive energy producer, to move Alberta towards more renewable energy and to help us, for instance, with our coal phase out.”

“It allows us to diversify our markets. It allows us to sell our product east to China and other Asia-Pacific markets. And in so doing, we get rid of this price discount that we are subjected to by selling solely to the U.S. So we get that bump,” Notley says.

“And it also gives us a higher level of economic independence generally by way of being able to pick and choose our markets based on the best timing here or there... It was a good decision, and I think ultimately an excellent example of balancing thoughtful and effective progress on environmental decisions with the need to support Canadians and their jobs.”

So on the contrary side, the Kinder Morgan pipeline project will not increase oil consumption or the impact on climate change, merely increase revenue and jobs for Albertans, British Columbians and Canadians.

And the jobs and revenue are substantial.

Kinder Morgan says its pipeline would create 15,000 jobs during construction and 37,000 direct and indirect jobs each year it operates.

It would also bring $46.7 billion in provincial and federal taxes in the construction phase and during more than 20 years of operating, plus higher prices for oil producers. The majority of the additional revenue — an estimated $19.4 billion would go to Alberta.

And Notley’s government is doing far more to transition away from fossil fuels than B.C. — phasing out the use of thermal coal for electricity, implementing a carbon tax that will soon exceed B.C.’s frozen version and working to protect and create energy sector jobs while planning the move away from oil, natural gas and coal to renewable energy.

The Alberta NDP government also argues that increased revenue from diversifying oil markets helps pay for the transition — without changing the export volume.

So with big, tough issues with arguments on both sides in favour or against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the NDP and BC Liberals staking out what they believe is both the correct and the winning position. If it is the election’s critical issue, voters will decide which is right.

And pipeline politics mean the two parties’ strategies are like oil and water — they don’t mix.  [Tyee]

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