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B.C. NDP leadership candidate Mike Farnworth participates in a 24-hour soccer marathon in Vancouver, April 14, 2011, to save the New Fountain homeless shelter.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

B.C. NDP leadership candidate Mike Farnworth's proposal to backtrack on his party's opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion is drawing a cold reception from environmentalists – and some members of his caucus.

Mr. Farnworth, to date the sole candidate for the party leadership, says the New Democrats should be neutral on the proposal until the application process is complete. That would leave the door open for the NDP to support the project even though it campaigned fiercely against Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway proposal.

In an interview, Mr. Farnworth said he is advocating a different approach than the one his party took on the Enbridge proposal. The NDP came out in opposition to the northern pipeline when Enbridge filed its application to the National Energy Board. On the Kinder Morgan project, he said, the party should wait until the application process is finished to take a position.

The 994-kilometre oil pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby would twin an existing pipeline and follow its route most of the way.

"When it comes to resource projects, all the information, the best science, should be on the table so that when you do make a decision, people understand why you made it," he said. "Enbridge is Enbridge. This is how I think Kinder Morgan should be done."

The leadership job is up for grabs after NDP leader Adrian Dix delivered a stunning electoral loss last spring. The NDP's strong lead in the polls evaporated last May, in part because of Mr. Dix's mid-campaign decision to oppose the Kinder Morgan expansion after initially saying he would wait until the application was filed to take a position.

Mr. Farnworth's position on Kinder Morgan puts him at odds with the NDP-friendly mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, who strongly oppose the plan. As well, the party's environment critic, Spencer Chandra-Herbert, and NDP green jobs critic George Heyman, said on Monday they cannot see how the party could support the Kinder Morgan plan.

"Unless you deal with the increase in climate change created by the new oil pipeline and the huge risk to the coast, I don't see how you could back away and endorse Kinder Morgan," Mr. Chandra-Herbert said.

Mr. Heyman agreed the party should stand firm. "I believe it was a good decision, I still believe it was the right position," he said in an interview. He said the party's reasons for opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway application dictate a similar conclusion on Kinder Morgan. A marine oil spill in B.C.'s southern waters if a tanker carrying Kinder Morgan's oil would be just as catastrophic, he said, as a northern spill from an Enbridge tanker.

"The benefits to British Columbia are fairly small, the risk is high," Mr. Heyman said.

Patti Bacchus, the high-profile chairperson of the Vancouver Board of Education who says she has not ruled out seeking the leadership, said the Kinder Morgan shift was not helpful to the NDP last spring.

"That change in the middle of the campaign, that threw people off," she said. "Those are hard decisions and discussions that have to be made with a lot of consultation and I would not presume to take a quick discussion on something that complex."

Ms. Bacchus says she is more focused on trying to convince prospects she declines to name to enter the race and bring new ideas to the NDP. However, she said she has faced calls to run herself and is not closing the door to the possibility of a run of her own.

She said the NDP is in desperate need of a re-evaluation of its identity and is "waffling" on resource issues such as pipelines.

Tzeporah Berman was one of the first prominent environmentalists to applaud the NDP for opposing the pipeline. She said on Monday the NDP's miscalculation was not in opposing Kinder Morgan, but the way they presented the position.

Trying to pull back now, she said, would be risky.

"From an environment perspective, it doesn't make sense to oppose Enbridge and support Kinder Morgan," she said. "Farnworth is potentially pulling the party back into the dark ages where they are seeing jobs and the environment in conflict."

Joe Foy, national campaign director of the Wilderness Committee, said the NDP should not abandon its opposition.

"I don't get it," he said. "I can't imagine a future where the people of this region will sit still for a tidal wave of more oil tankers here. … I would prefer and respect and NDP position that says 'no' and joins up with the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby."

With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver