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The Globe and Mail

Clark’s reasonable pipeline concerns lead to an unreasonable demand

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark talks with reporters before the start of the morning session at the annual Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax on Thursday, July 26, 2012.

Andrew Vaughan/CP

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark faces an uphill battle to win next year's provincial election. Unreservedly endorsing the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline – a proposal that makes many British Columbians nervous, for environmental reasons, and that the provincial New Democrats oppose – could make that campaign even tougher for her Liberals. So it's understandable that she wants concessions from Alberta, which wishes to transport its crude oil through B.C. for shipment to Asia, before signing on.

Unfortunately, Ms. Clark's reasonable concerns have led to an unreasonable demand. The condition that B.C. must receive a "fair share" of profits from oil carried through the pipeline is not just impractical, but also patently illogical.

It is impractical because, as Alberta Premier Alison Redford has forcefully argued, provincial control of natural resources – and the revenues derived from them – is fundamental to Canadian federalism. Those resources are frequently transported through other provinces, and there is little precedent for the sort of compensation Ms. Clark is calling for.

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To open that door would, as Ms. Redford has suggested, risk endless haggling that could threaten economically vital projects not just in Alberta, but in other provinces as well. Subnational governments should support each other's ambitions wherever possible – especially when, as in the case of Alberta's oil sands, the revenues help to fund programs and services across the country.

As for the gap in logic, Ms. Clark's argument hinges on the strange premise that a risk is equivalent to a cost. Despite the concerns that have emerged following several spills from Alberta's aging pipelines, the risk of a new pipeline suffering a major accident is relatively low. Nevertheless, if Ms. Clark believes the danger to environmentally sensitive areas is still too high, she should oppose the project outright. Accepting a payoff from Alberta would do little to alleviate those concerns.

If Ms. Clark's worries are genuine, but not so great as to be prohibitive should the project pass environmental reviews, a more defensible condition would be insisting upon some form of insurance to help cover costs in the case of an accident. That could involve an iron-clad commitment from the federal and Alberta governments (along with Enbridge, the company that would build the pipeline) to ensure that B.C. did not absorb any cleanup costs, or even the establishment of a fund to cover those costs in the event they're ever incurred.

The problem for Ms. Clark – and Ms. Redford – is that such a condition might not satisfy the B.C. electorate. But that is another matter.

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