Stephen Harper was never going to do anything but approve Northern Gateway, yet this pipeline has still forced him into a political gamble.
The Prime Minister doesn’t usually like to take big risks with his political support, especially in the places where he needs it. But Gateway is a risk in B.C., where his Tories have 21 seats, not just because the pipeline is controversial, but because it means oil tankers off the coast. And that’s really unpopular.
A saving grace, politically, is that Tuesday’s “yes” for Northern Gateway is really a maybe. Mr. Harper has granted approval, but hasn’t done enough to ensure it will be built. It will almost certainly be in courts for years. It’s not imminent.
Even so, it’s risky politics in the meantime. When the government finally released a long-awaited decision, there was no news conference by the PM, or a minister, but just a printed statement. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair accused B.C. Tory MPs of “hiding under their desks.” The Conservatives weren’t rushing to put their faces on this decision.
Of course, Mr. Harper was always on an unswerving path toward the approval of Northern Gateway.
When U.S. President Barack Obama delayed the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011, Mr. Harper made selling energy to Asia an economic priority, insisting Canada cannot be a “captive” supplier for the U.S. He streamlined reviews for pipelines. He expressed disdain for American delays for Keystone XL. After all that, rejecting Gateway would make him seem like a hypocrite.
In some ways, the pro-Gateway arguments are part of Mr. Harper’s political brand: He puts the economy first in those economy-versus-environment arguments. But even with the reasonable argument that Alberta’s oil needs more than one export market, Northern Gateway is a case where he’s got a weak political hand.
There’s the opposition of B.C. First Nations, potential rain-forest impacts and emissions concerns. But more than anything, it’s the tankers.
The Gateway pipeline would bring bitumen to tankers, and that raises fears of a massive spill in the narrow Douglas Channel along B.C.’s pristine coast. Poll after poll shows overwhelming opposition to tankers. And many B.C. residents who don’t like tankers fear Gateway would be followed by projects such as twinning the Trans-Mountain pipeline, which would mean more tankers in Vancouver’s harbour.
That makes it a tricky issue among the constituents of many of those 21 Conservative MPs, such as Industry Minister James Moore, MP for Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam. Mr. Mulcair teased that the normally talkative Mr. Moore has been “quiet as a church mouse” on the pipeline – recognizing the silence as a sign of political discomfort.
Christy Clark’s canny B.C. Liberal government isn’t helping the Tories make the case, either. It had set five vague conditions for approval, and Tuesday said four haven’t been met, and stressed the answer is no until things change. The Liberals like natural-gas pipelines, but oil tankers? Probably not.
That leaves Mr. Harper’s Tories awfully alone. Both Mr. Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said they’d block Northern Gateway if they defeated Mr. Harper next year.
That doesn’t mean it’s a certain loser for Mr. Harper. There will be lengthy legal challenges, aided by the fact that Mr. Harper’s government almost certainly hasn’t yet met the legal burden for consulting First Nations. Construction may still seem far away during next year’s election campaign.
And sometimes it’s good in politics to have all others against you. The Conservatives might eventually judge that in a three-way race they can use Gateway as a wedge issue to appeal to enough British Columbians who think it will help the economy.
We’ll be able to tell whether Mr. Harper’s team has adopted that as its plan if prominent B.C. Conservatives such as Mr. Moore start stumping for Gateway on TV and in their ridings. Right now, their silence shows they’ve been forced into a gamble.