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Oil rises to the surface as an election issue in B.C.

Just about one year to the day after a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, a tanker truck tipped over on the highway, just outside Victoria, polluting a salmon stream that runs through the heart of the federal riding of Esquimalt - Juan de Fuca.

The irony of having one spill on the anniversary of another won't be lost on British Columbia voters, where oil has become an election issue that is slowly rising to the surface.

There is of course no comparison in the scale of the accidents. The Deepwater Horizon spilled 780 million litres of crude that damaged a vast coastline, while the Columbia Fuels truck dumped just 42,000 litres of gasoline, most of which ran into a ditch, and then into Goldstream River, which in some places is small enough to jump across.

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But the two events had this much in common - both involved trusted technology that failed despite a carefully constructed regulatory framework meant to keep it safe. And both have served to remind British Columbians that oil is a resource that is exploited, and transported, at some risk.

Voters are being asked to think about that by the Dogwood Initiative, a small, smart, non-profit based in Victoria that is campaigning to keep in place a ban on oil tanker traffic on the West Coast.

Eric Swanson, corporate campaigner for Dogwood, said five key ridings have been identified where candidates (read Conservatives) who favour lifting the tanker ban can be defeated by a modest swing in the vote.

Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, where the perennially popular Liberal, Keith Martin, is not running after several victories, is one such riding.

Conservative Troy DeSouza finished just 68 votes behind Mr. Martin in 2008, and should expect to easily win this time, over the new Liberal candidate, Lillian Szpak, who is not nearly as well known.

And he might - if oil doesn't slip him up on the way to the polls.

"The NDP candidate, Randall Garrison, is the first municipal councillor in B.C. to pass a local resolution supporting a tanker ban, so there's a strong local champion in that riding," said Mr. Swanson. "And that's where we're based, so we've got a lot of supporters in that riding as well."

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It's also a riding where a tanker truck just dumped a load of gasoline into a beloved local river, where kids from 55 schools were about to release thousands of salmon fry that they'd raised in tanks in their classrooms. Some 70,000 chum fry had been released before the spill and their fate is unknown.

One imagines a lot of worried children asked their parents last week about oil spills. And if they didn't, there were headlines from the Gulf anniversary coverage to remind them all of the issue.

Later this week, 25,000 households will receive calls from Dogwood, to invite them to join a live town-hall discussion on oil tankers.

Mr. Swanson said in addition to Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Dogwood's No Tankers campaign is focusing on Vancouver South, Vancouver Quadra, North Vancouver and Vancouver Island North. By phoning, going door to door, Tweeting and posting on Facebook, voters are being told which candidates support a tanker ban and which don't.

"We picked ridings where we can either indirectly support a strong champion for an oil tanker ban, or ones where we can contribute to a defeat of a Conservative incumbent or candidate who does not support an oil tanker ban," he said.

Polls have shown about 70 per cent of British Columbians, regardless of party affiliation, support a tanker ban.

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"We know the Conservative Party is offside with their base on this issue," said Mr. Swanson, who hopes to drive a wedge into that gap and break off some traditional Conservative votes. "We don't think we can change Stephen Harper's mind on the policy. So we need to create consequences for Stephen Harper's government … and what better time than an election to create consequences."

With oil spills fresh in voters minds, they just might do that.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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