With a regulatory review for the contentious Northern Gateway project still under way – and a provincial election on the horizon – British Columbia's New Democratic Party is already looking at ways to stop the $5.5-billion project should it be approved.
That includes a legal team considering strategies to prevent it from being built, NDP Leader Adrian Dix says.
"We're looking at all of the options the province might use to deal with the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline," Mr. Dix said Thursday from Kelowna.
The Northern Gateway proposal is in the midst of a regulatory review by the National Energy Board scheduled to conclude in December, 2013.
The NDP is in opposition, but the political landscape could change by next spring.
Recent polls indicate that Mr. Dix is far ahead of Liberal Premier Christy Clark, who has said she wants the regulatory process to unfold before taking a position on the Northern Gateway. The provincial election will be in May, 2013.
Northern Gateway – a twin-pipeline system that would ship oil from near Edmonton to Kitimat and condensate in the other direction – is a key part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plans to open new markets for Canadian resources. Alberta Premier Alison Redford also backs the project.
But it has encountered fierce opposition from environmentalists and native bands, including coastal B.C. groups whose territory is near the prospective tanker route that is part of the proposal.
Calgary-based Enbridge, the company pursuing the project, says it has the support of the majority of native bands along the 1,200-kilometre pipeline route.
With some observers expecting the review panel to give the project a green light, speculation has shifted to what a provincial government could do to block Enbridge.
"A province can put hurdles in the way if they really chose to do so," said Neil McCrank, a Calgary regulatory lawyer who was chair of the Alberta Energy Utilities Board when it was Alberta's energy regulator.
Such a move would fall afoul of the way the country is supposed to operate, he noted. Provinces have generally deferred to the National Energy Board because of its expertise, but "a provincial government has authority with respect to environmental components within a jurisdiction."
Former bureaucrats described several ways a government could stymie a project like Gateway. For one, Enbridge would need access to substantial tracts of B.C. Crown land. The province can't just say no, because Enbridge is legally entitled to permits to operate on that land if it meets certain criteria. But B.C. could change the criteria by, for example, requiring underground drilling for each of the hundreds of streams and creeks Gateway would cross. That would substantially raise the cost.
The province could also write a new rule that would require a public hearing for the communities that would be affected by ocean-bound pipelines, prolonging the timeline.
B.C. could also mount a court challenge against the federal proceedings if it resulted in an approval. Such a challenge need not succeed to be effective: it simply has to cause substantial delays.
Mr. Dix declined to discuss specifics of what the legal team, which includes Vancouver lawyer Murray Rankin, is considering.
"You can do a whole pile of stuff on the regulatory front that will increase the price to where it makes it economically prohibitive," said one former bureaucrat, who did not want to be identified because of current contracts with industry. "The smartest thing to do from a political perspective would be to fight the thing in court because the delays will kill the project."