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British Columbia Rachel Notley treads lightly selling pipeline in British Columbia

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on Nov. 29, 2016.

Justin Tang/CP

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is in British Columbia this week on a two-day media tour carefully planned to avoid protests while using her clout as a progressive politician to temper staunch opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The NDP Premier will be making no public appearances and has refused to provide an itinerary. A visit with her B.C. counterpart, Premier Christy Clark, will wait until they attend the first ministers' meeting on climate change in Ottawa on Friday.

This will be a careful testing of the waters after the contentious federal decision last week to approve Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion Trans Mountain project – a move that has angered environmentalists, indigenous communities and some of British Columbia's most influential civic leaders.

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Ms. Notley was set to meet with just one pipeline opponent – provincial NDP Leader John Horgan – for what was expected to be a civil and private meeting of long-time friends.

However, there will be no such meeting with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a former NDP MLA in British Columbia and one of the leading opponents of the pipeline expansion, which will result in a sevenfold increase in the number of oil tankers passing through the city's English Bay.

Several indigenous communities are preparing to launch a court action to block the project, and Ms. Notley's visit has angered First Nations leaders, who say she should be meeting with them.

"Who is she engaging with? It's not us," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. He said avoiding opponents won't help persuade British Columbians to abandon their fears about the risk of oil spills and compared the visit to the tightly controlled messaging of the previous federal government. "It's like in the early days of the Harper government – they were doing the same thing. It didn't work for them, and it won't work for her."

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However, Ms. Notley's willingness to travel to British Columbia to defend the project stands in contrast to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has so far ignored an invitation from the B.C. Premier to come to the province to explain his decision. Instead, Mr. Trudeau has dispatched several cabinet ministers to British Columbia since announcing cabinet approval for the twinning of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline on Nov. 29 at a news conference in Ottawa.

Ms. Clark last week said the project is very close to meeting the conditions for approval that she established more than four years ago. However, she also made it clear that she does not intend to invest her own political capital in selling the project to British Columbians, saying it is up to the Prime Minister to come out and explain the merits of the project.

In a statement from her office on Monday, Ms. Notley said she is in British Columbia to answer questions about the project. Its approval has been received as a critical win for her province as Alberta's oil industry, struggling through a sustained slump in energy prices, looks for direct access to Asian markets for its crude oil exports.

"The Kinder Morgan pipeline offers an opportunity to show that a strong economy that benefits working families and world-class environmental standards go hand in hand," Ms. Notley said in her statement. "I look forward to having thoughtful and constructive conversations about the mutual benefits the project will bring to our two provinces."

B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, who on Monday challenged Ms. Notley to a public debate on the merits of the project, said her visit is not actually a conversation because she won't hear from the public.

"She said she is coming to B.C. to sell this project to British Columbians, but it's clear to me she is actually here to sell this project to John Horgan," Mr. Weaver said in an interview. Mr. Horgan has campaigned against the pipeline expansion, but earlier this year said he was open to persuasion on the merits of the project.

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Mr. Weaver, a climate scientist, has opposed the expansion of pipelines across British Columbia, saying the increased movement of diluted bitumen poses an unacceptable risk to the coastline and confounds Canada's international commitments to tackle climate change.

Although her visit is marked by caution, Ms. Notley's office has signalled it is just the first of a series of visits to British Columbia. She is also not meeting this week with the business community, which has welcomed the federal approval of the project.

Just hours ahead of the Alberta Premier's anticipated arrival in Vancouver, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers released a report touting the importance of the Alberta oil sands to British Columbia's economy. The survey found that almost 1,600 B.C. businesses are providing goods and services to the oil patch in Alberta.

Iain Black, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said Ms. Notley's visit gives her an opportunity to explain to people how Trans Mountain fits into Canada's broader economic picture.

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