Adrian Dix says he made up his mind to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal after the company signalled its expanded ambitions for the project in January. But until the moment that he stepped up to the podium at a carefully staged policy announcement on the banks of the North Thompson River on Monday, the BC NDP Leader publicly maintained his party would take no position until the proponents submit their formal application to the national review panel.
"I thought Earth Day was a good day to say clearly what I thought – we have no intention of seeing Metro Vancouver become a major oil tanker centre," Mr. Dix said in an interview Tuesday.
Mr. Dix said he wasn't rushed into the decision: "It's been an important question for some time, there wasn't any particular pressure other than the importance of the issue," he said. "I reflected on it for a long time."
But while he publicly sat on the fence, pressure was growing both inside and outside the party.
It was the first notable recalculation on Mr. Dix's part in this campaign. It reflects what his candidates have been hearing on the doorsteps, as well as a potential clash among those who are expected to be a part of the next NDP caucus.
The New Democrats still bear the scars of past internal battles when resource development collided with environmental values: Names such as Six Mile Ranch, Carmanah and Clayoquot Sound resonate for those who recall the caucus and party divided.
Party insiders say the evolution of the Earth Day announcement speaks to the strong opposition to the oil pipeline proposal in vote-rich Metro Vancouver. Environmentalists were cranking up the heat, which could end up pushing voters towards the B.C. Green Party at the polls. The non-position on the politically explosive Kinder Morgan pipeline was simply not sustainable in a party that has a strong environmental wing.
That's the external pressure. Internally, not taking a position on Kinder Morgan was also increasingly difficult to sustain. If Mr. Dix emerges as the victor on May 14, the decision on how to handle the pipeline question could easily have become Mr. Dix's first caucus challenge.
Pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion said the shift reflects a concern about the Green vote. "If it is born out of a political calculation, that was the one," he said. "This is a way to reconnect with the environmentally friendly base, including those who are flirting with the Greens."
It took little time for leading environmentalists to cheer the NDP move – it was a signal they had been waiting for, a key factor deciding whether they would help the party in this election or hinder it as they did in 2009 over the carbon tax.
Mike Harcourt was the NDP premier in the 1990s who was faced with a string of environmental conflicts – notably a war in the woods that saw his caucus fracture along rural and urban lines.
"Clayoquot was extraordinary," he recalled. "We made an announcement that didn't satsify the extremes on either side, so you had 800 people who went to jail … and 20,000 loggers decended on the lawns."
The challenge he faced on forestry, and that Mr. Dix would face on pipelines, comes down to reconciling the values of economic prosperity and environmental health.
"You are always trying to look through the lens of the urban MLAs and the rest of the province outside of the largest clear-cut in B.C. known as the Lower Mainland," Mr. Harcourt said.
By taking a stand now, Mr. Dix at least won't have to work his way through a debate in caucus in the aftermath of the election, if the NDP wins form government.