In the midst of an austerity squeeze on government spending, B.C. Premier Christy Clark rolled out more than $700-million in capital spending commitments on Friday, much of it to be paid for some time after the next provincial election.
In a critical pre-election address to the province’s local government leaders, Ms. Clark packed in a series of good-news announcements including the end of a major labour dispute with the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union.
But she saved the most political message for last when she tackled the controversy over the proposed Northern Gateway project.
Ms. Clark told delegates to the Union of B.C. Municipalities she will travel to Calgary next week to deliver a firm message that B.C. will not allow its environment to be put at risk to transport Alberta oil to market.
“I want them to know that if B.C.’s conditions are not addressed and met, the Enbridge pipeline will not be built, period,” Ms. Clark said. The B.C. premier has been ramping up the rhetoric on the pipeline since last summer, although her government does not officially oppose the pipeline. Instead, it has set out five conditions that must be met, including environmental protections and a “fair share” of the financial benefits.
“Yes, we do deserve a fair share of the benefits,” Ms. Clark said Friday, “but there is no price we can put on our environment,” she said to applause. “There is no amount of money that can make up for an unacceptable risk when it comes to our oceans, our coast and our land.”
Ms. Clark has been pushing to develop a liquefied natural gas industry in B.C. which would require a different set of pipeline infrastructure. But, she noted: “I have never seen a seagull wash up on the coast covered in natural gas.”
Speaking later to reporters, Ms. Clark said she is using her trip to Calgary next week to challenge the perception that her government is only trying to squeeze a share of revenue from Alberta.
“I’m going to Alberta to speak to Albertans about British Columbians’ concerns about this pipeline, with heavy oil pipelines in general,” she later told reporters. “The debate, from my perspective, in Alberta has been a little bit frustrating because the media over there has presented this as a debate about just British Columbia’s fair share. That’s not what it is about. The bigger issue for us is, how do we protect our environment.”
Ms. Clark also surprised delegates with promises of new and fast-tracked transportation, housing, education and health facility projects. The list includes $207-million in community projects, to be funded within the current three-year budget plan.
“These are new projects that we can get started this year,” Ms. Clark told a packed hall of mayors and councillors. She said that money will come from savings found elsewhere in government. “It is money we have saved from pinching our pennies.”
In addition, she promised to complete the expansion to four lanes of the Trans-Canada highway between Kamloops and the Alberta border, at a cost of $509-million in new dollars. She said she will go to Ottawa to ask for matching funds.
And she promised to begin work on a replacement for the aging George Massey Tunnel, a significant transportation choke-point in Metro Vancouver. But she provided no cost for such a massive project: “We do not have a moment to lose. Starting today we will begin engaging Delta, Richmond and other communities to determine what a replacement will look like.”
The commitments were unexpected. Just weeks ago, her finance minister announced a restraint program that included a cut in capital spending by almost a billion dollars “in order to maintain debt affordability.”
And earlier this week, her communities minister Bill Bennett warned delegates that the coffers are empty and the best they could expect was a greater say over infrastructure spending once the taps are open again.
Bruce Ralston, the NDP finance critic, said Ms. Clark is spending money that doesn’t exist.
“She’s just blowing smoke, there is no money in the plan,” he said in an interview. “ It’s hard to believe its deliberate but it’s a confused message. You have the finance minister talking about pulling back on the capital program and the premier today talking about building more. Those two folks gotta talk more.”