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gateway pipeline

NDP MP Nathan Cullen has intervenor status at the Northern Gateway hearingsAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Since being appointed NDP Parliamentary House Leader, Nathan Cullen says he has been happy to tiptoe around the spotlight, leaving other NDP MPs to speak on most issues.

But the 40-year-old Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP is reserving the right to be a prominent critic of the $6-billion Northern Gateway project, which faces resumed hearings in Prince Rupert this week. The controversial pipeline to stream Alberta oil sands bitumen to British Columbia for shipment to Asia would run through the Norway-sized northern B.C. riding, which the Toronto-born Mr. Cullen has represented since 2004. He wants it stopped.

Mr. Cullen, who has intervenor status at the hearings, was scheduled for an appearance this week, but will instead attend early next year to question federal fisheries policy on the project. He has had an eye on Gateway for years. "It's a very high-risk design," he said. "It requires a pipeline to cross significant obstacles, then implicates tanker traffic in some pretty dangerous water. There's no other place in the world like it."

As architect of NDP House strategy, the former environment critic who gained national prominence for a respectable third-place finish in the NDP leadership race – and he isn't ruling out another bid – said he has "in some ways" left the Gateway file to other members of the team. But in an interview between flights at Vancouver International Airport, he laughed and said: "I can't entirely. I am still the MP."

While the project has been beset by enough controversy to raise questions about its prospects, Mr. Cullen is not easing up, partly because of his suspicions about the Prime Minister. "He's backed himself into a difficult corner," Mr. Cullen said, referring to Stephen Harper's support for shipping Canadian oil to Asia. "I'm worried about what he will do to get out of that corner."

Beyond Gateway, Mr. Cullen says Canada has to diversify its energy customer base away from the "increasingly fragile U.S. market." Over all, he's calling for a conversation on an energy strategy that would include "good" energy projects and job creation.

Taylor Bachrach, the mayor of Smithers where Mr. Cullen has a home, says the MP has done a good job standing up to the corporate clout of Gateway proponent Enbridge Inc. and its supporters. "It's tough not to be intimidated by the amount of power behind the pipeline. Partly what Nathan has managed to do is to help amplify the voices of people in the region and given them greater prominence."

Not surprisingly, Enbridge takes a contrary view. "We have not always agreed with things Mr. Cullen has said," Enbridge communications manager Todd Nogier said.

Mr. Cullen's role in Ottawa is no less riddled with conflict. Sometimes House leaders of opposing stripes spar when the cameras are rolling but get along behind closed doors. But Mr. Cullen and Peter Van Loan, his Conservative government counter-part, have been privately at odds.

Mr. Cullen rarely accedes to Mr. Van Loan's propositions, sources say, which has engendered frustration on the government side. Last week featured Mr. Van Loan's floor-crossing confrontation, seasoned with what has been called "unparliamentary language," when Mr. Cullen raised a procedural objection over how votes on a series of budget amendments had concluded.

Tim Powers, a Conservative political consultant and vice-president of communications at Summa Strategies, said he would give Mr. Cullen and the New Democrats good marks for decorum. "The down side of that for Cullen and the NDP is they are almost too bland, too safe. Some well-timed and executed theatrics around the right issues can be beneficial to an opposition that wants to be government. As exciting as watching paint dry is, it is more likely to motivate you to sleep – not rally to the cause."

Anne McGrath, the former chief of staff to NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and former leader Jack Layton, said Mr. Cullen is a strategic player. "He's got a sense of the overall dynamics of the House," Ms. McGrath said. "He has a really good understanding on the NDP caucus. And he also, I think, understands the motivations of the other parties, in particular, the government caucus."

Asked if his own strategy might include another leadership run, Mr. Cullen says he is strongly supportive of Mr. Mulcair, but references something he learned from Mr. Layton. "My natural instinct is, `No,'" he said. "But I am hearing Jack's voice in my head when I used to tell him, 'No,' saying "Never say never.'"