B.C. Premier Christy Clark said this week she is poised to support the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline, but on Thursday distanced herself from the task of persuading British Columbians that the project is worth the risk.
"Selling Kinder Morgan as being in the national interest is really the Prime Minister's job," Ms. Clark told reporters, repeating her invitation to Justin Trudeau to come to British Columbia to defend the decision he announced this week in Ottawa. Asked whether the project now has social licence to proceed, she again deflected: "That's a question worth asking of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau."
Ms. Clark says she is very close to being satisfied that she can support the pipeline, with just a few details left to be worked out. That will place her in contrast to her political rival, New Democratic Party Leader John Horgan, as the two prepare for a provincial election campaign that begins in April.
However, she made it clear she does not intend to go all-in as a champion of the project, which faces strong opposition from environmentalists, indigenous communities and civic leaders on the West Coast.
Ms. Clark said she expects the $6.8-billion pipeline project, which will result in a seven-fold increase in the number of tankers carrying diluted bitumen past British Columbia's southern coast, will meet all of the demands that she set out in 2012 as the conditions for B.C. approval.
The Premier said she is not concerned about losing support in the next election over her pro-pipeline stance.
"If people believe I have been consistent and straightforward about what I believe in – and I have stuck to my guns – that will be important in how they cast their ballot," she said. "I think people cast ballots based on character."
Mr. Horgan will meet on Monday with Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley to talk about their opposing views on the Kinder Morgan pipeline-expansion project.
Ms. Notley is travelling to British Columbia to defend the federal decision to approve the project and to talk up her province's efforts to combat climate change. But her political ally, Mr. Horgan, has taken a stand against the pipeline that is deemed crucial to Alberta's economic recovery.
"I think we will have candid conversation," Mr. Horgan said in an interview Thursday. He described Ms. Notley as a friend – in fact, several of his senior staff have gone to work for her government – but in this case, it appears the NDP Premier will be aligned with Ms. Clark.
In British Columbia, that leaves Mr. Horgan and the B.C. Green Party competing for the anti-pipeline vote. But as he goes into the next provincial election, there is no assurance that support will translate into a winning formula at the ballot box for Mr. Horgan.
When then-NDP leader Adrian Dix announced his opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in the middle of the 2013 election campaign, the New Democrats saw an immediate surge of positive reactions from environmentalists who wanted a party that would stand up against the expansion of heavy oil transported to B.C.'s coast and beyond.
After a day of plaudits from environmental activists, however, the NDP began to hemorrhage support as the Liberals successfully framed Mr. Dix as inconsistent. (He had initially promised not to take a position until the federal regulatory process was complete.) The promised environmental support did not materialize at the ballot box and Ms. Clark pulled off an unexpected victory.
Mr. Horgan said he doesn't expect the pipeline to be the defining question on the ballot in May, but he is willing to line up against Ms. Notley, Mr. Trudeau and likely Ms. Clark on this.
"If that becomes the defining issue of the election campaign, then I am prepared to take them on," he said in an interview Thursday. "I don't believe it is in the best interests of British Columbia."
Mr. Horgan will have allies with the mayors of Vancouver, Burnaby, Victoria and many more, as well as First Nations leaders and the dozens of environmental organizations that have vowed to continue to seek to block the pipeline. The NDP's lesson from their 2013 defeat, however, is that Mr. Horgan cannot assume that will inspire crucial swing voters to cast a ballot for his party.