B.C. government bureaucrats were urging their political masters last spring to take a position on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project. But a technical review due at the end of February still won't provide an answer on whether Premier Christy Clark's government supports or opposes the $5.5-billion proposal.
The wait-and-see approach has been entrenched since the province, under former premier Gordon Campbell, signed away B.C.'s right to conduct its own hearing. An agreement signed with Ottawa in July of 2010, making the National Energy Board the sole arbiter, provided Mr. Campbell and his ministers with cover to avoid direct questions about the proposal.
But last spring, when the NEB formally announced a hearing into the project, it looked like B.C. was ready to get off the fence. Environment Minister Terry Lake vowed to take an active role in shaping the future of Enbridge Inc.'s proposed 1,172-kilometre pipeline, which would carry Alberta oil to a shipping terminal on the British Columbia coast.
That promise was encouraging to civil servants. "Yesterday, the Joint Panel issued a hearing order for the Northern Gateway Project [attached]and it is now time for the Province to determine how we are going to get involved," declared Patrick Russell, Forest and Lands Ministry manager in an e-mail dated May 6, 2011.
"The Gateway Project is by no means a normal project that we are used to dealing with and now that we have firm dates for the hearing the province is in a position to figure out our involvement," he wrote.
The agency that is now responsible for the technical review compiled a summary of events that observed that on May 18, 2011, Mr. Lake stated that the province would "fully participate" in the NEB hearing.
At the time, that meant direct participation in the panel hearings, which are now under way, "to ensure that provincial interests are effectively and efficiently incorporated into the review."
The subsequent passage in the summary is censored. The next event listed is on June 29, 2011, when the province registered for intervenor status rather than as a government participant – as Alberta has. The choice of intervenor status, the paper explains, was "because it was not clear what role government wanted to play in the proceedings, and seeking the provision of oral evidence had not been ruled out."
The same planning document lists the lack of clear government direction as a risk to their work. "Continue to seek what the province wants to achieve," advised the authors.
Mr. Lake could not be reached for comment Monday but ministry officials stated that the technical review is expected to be delivered to the minister by the end of February, and it won't include a government position.
The Enbridge project fits within Ms. Clark's jobs agenda but it faces widespread opposition in B.C. from environmental and first nations interests. The province has a legal duty to consult with first nations – a point that is raised by civil servants in the 370 pages of documents publicly released in response to a Freedom of Information request. But a specific plan to address that duty is not spelled out.
The benefits to B.C. include thousands of "person-years" of employment and $1.2-billion in tax revenue over 30 years. The pipeline also would reinforce the Premier's desire to position B.C. as a key player in growing the national economy. And, Ms. Clark's support would also go a long way toward forging a new relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and buttress her party's ties to the federal Conservatives.
The environmental risks – and the political risks – so far have outweighed any action.
The province still has the opportunity to raise questions at the hearing, but there is no indication that it is planning to intercede.
Though there are myriad environmental issues raised by the pipeline that will have to managed by the province – ranging from tunnel development to waste handling, handling of hazardous materials, spill prevention and response – it now looks quite possible that B.C. will leave the National Energy Board entirely on the hook for the decision.