The five conditions for building oil pipelines in B.C., laid down a year ago by Premier Christy Clark, haven’t varied. There is a change, though, in how the proponents of moving heavy oil across the Rockies see their obligations to address those conditions.
B.C. voters, in giving Ms. Clark a majority government last month, have dealt her a strong hand. It is not, as environmentalists would like to believe, a mandate to say no. Ms. Clark sees her victory as a licence to get to “yes” – but on British Columbia’s terms.
It might not be “yes” to Enbridge, in the end, but there is a genuine effort under way to try to clear the path. The Clark government now enjoys a more understanding response to its demands for better environmental protection, First Nations consultations and a share of the resource revenues.
Prior to the election, Ms. Clark’s “we don’t need Alberta” approach wasn’t winning her any friends outside B.C. But then, the representatives of industry, Alberta and Ottawa weren’t really expecting to be dealing with Ms. Clark after the May 14 election.
At the end of May, B.C. formally rejected the current version of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Enbridge CEO Al Monaco didn’t flinch. He wants to meet with the B.C. government to work out how his company can address B.C.’s concerns. At a conference last week, he was talking about the industry’s obligation to build public trust.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford is keen to talk with B.C. again. And so is the Harper government.
“Now the election is over, we can all get to work and collaborate on some extremely significant issues for the country and in particular for the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia,” said Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver in an interview. “What’s crucially important is that we keep the dialogue open.”
There is progress being made in the long-overdue consultation with First Nations, and talks between Alberta and B.C. about some way to meet Ms. Clark’s “fair share” demands. On marine safety, emergency response and the liability question, Ottawa still has “somewhat more to do,” Mr. Oliver said, “and we intend to do it.”
But Ms. Clark would do well not to overplay her hand. While she and Ms. Redford haven’t found a mutual time to talk energy in advance of the Western Premiers’ conference later this month, Ms. Redford did meet last week with New Brunswick Premier David Alward to map out a possible oil route to the Atlantic.
Mr. Oliver believes it is possible to build Northern Gateway according to B.C.’s terms, but it will depend on how those conditions are laid down. “Is that a bridge too far? We’ll see.”
Norman Spector has worked both sides of the federal-provincial-relations file – a former deputy minister under premier Bill Bennett in the 1980s, and prime minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff in the 1990s.
He is encouraged by the developments of the past week, because no doors were slammed when B.C. announced its “not now” response to Northern Gateway. The environmental concerns are a powerful force in B.C. – likely a factor in Ms. Clark losing her seat on election night even as her party swept to victory. “The rest of the country has to understand that and help her out,” he said.
Ms. Clark has a mandate to promote economic development so long as she shows progress on the five conditions, but within those conditions, he figures, there is lots of “wiggle room” if the parties are willing to make it happen.
But even then, the pipeline opposition in B.C. is strong, and he says Ms. Clark needs to develop an exit strategy. “It doesn’t matter if you have a mandate, there comes a time when even an elected government can’t get its way,” he said.
“If I were advising her, the one piece of advice would be, keep open the option of having a referendum on what she and others see as a reasonable proposal. I think it’s going to be a hell of a fight, whatever proposal, route method, mode of transport. That’s British Columbia.”