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Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

GARY MASON

Dix’s pipeline flip-flop is a resource chiller Add to ...

The B.C. election was proceeding along fairly uneventfully until NDP Leader Adrian Dix decided to make it interesting.

Mr. Dix used Earth Day to reverse his previously held position on the proposed $5.4-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. As recently as two weeks ago, Mr. Dix was saying that – as a matter of principle – he would not prejudge the pipeline builder’s plans until they’d been filed as part of the federal environmental review process later this year. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait any longer.

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Now Mr. Dix is against the project, saying he doesn’t believe Vancouver should become a major oil exporting port. Kinder Morgan wants to triple its current pipeline capacity, from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 – a move that would significantly increase tanker traffic in the port of Vancouver.

While surprising, the NDP Leader’s position isn’t the roll of the dice it might seem. There are plenty of people in the province who agree with his position, and not just those who make up the enviro brigade. Support for the expanded pipeline is particularly low in the Vancouver area. Many First Nations groups don’t want it, either. That said, it’s widely accepted that Mr. Dix jumped off his earlier stand because of the threat an ascendant Green Party poses for him.

There’s no doubt the NDP weighed the benefits of coming out against the pipeline proposal with the downside risks. For instance, Mr. Dix is sure to lose some support for flip-flopping on a matter of principle for crass political purposes. But he must also deal with the possible instability he has created in the province’s investment climate.

As fate would have it, this meshes nicely with the election theme that the Liberals have been hammering home: that they are the party of economic development and jobs, while the NDP represents higher taxes and financial Armageddon. Against the backdrop of Mr. Dix’s Kinder Morgan disclosure, the Liberals’ overarching campaign narrative has found new resonance.

“I believe in getting to yes with economic development and Adrian Dix starts from no,” Premier Christy Clark said at a campaign stop in Sicamous this week. “He’s not talking about growing economic development, he’s talking about growing government.”

Campaign rhetoric, to be sure. But Mr. Dix’s move has given Ms. Clark some fresh material to work with. There’s little question that the NDP Leader’s unexpected tack will raise alarms in the very business community he’s been working hard to calm regarding his possible rise to power.

Kinder Morgan has already spent millions developing a proposal it plans to submit to the federal environmental review process. How must the company feel knowing that all that work (and money) will have been a waste if Mr. Dix forms the next government? Kinder Morgan says it will press ahead, but why?

Mr. Dix says he also wants to develop a made-in-B.C. environmental approval process – one that trumps the review procedure for which the federal government is responsible. If Mr. Dix’s earlier outright rejection of the Northern Gateway project didn’t send a clear signal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that an NDP government in B.C. will be a handful, his decision on Kinder Morgan should erase any doubts.

Nor can Alison Redford’s government in Alberta be too thrilled about what she’s hearing from across the mountains. Mr. Dix’s pronouncement has pan-national implications.

Mr. Dix, of course, is certainly allowed his position, but it raises legitimate questions about future resource development in B.C. What’s the point, for example, of having an environmental review process if the government is going to decide ahead of time what it’s going to allow and what it’s not? Resource development has provided much of B.C.’s prosperity for generations. By its very nature, it’s environmentally invasive. There are generally risks associated with it, ones you try to mitigate as best as possible.

Mr. Dix has sent a chill throughout the resource sector. It’s fine to nix these projects and the money and jobs that come with it, but what do you replace them with? The NDP Leader knows how important resource revenues are to the provincial treasury. They help pay for everything from health care to education. What will he replace them with if he starts killing every project being opposed by environmentalists?

This is a question Mr. Dix will quickly have to answer should he win the May 14 vote.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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