A framework agreement between Premiers Christy Clark and Alison Redford on the conditions necessary for pipeline development in B.C. is being interpreted as a green light for Enbridge's Northern Gateway project and others that may follow.
But while the accord clears a major roadblock standing in the way of pipeline expansion in B.C., it guarantees nothing.
There is still plenty of work that needs to be done to satisfy the stiff stipulations that Ms. Clark has put in place around environmental matters such as oil spill response as well as First Nations involvement. At this point, it seems difficult to see what the B.C. government will be able to do to quell widespread opposition that centres on these matters.
For instance, a recent report commissioned by the B.C. government on Canada's oil spill response capacity indicated that in a best-case scenario only 50 per cent of the crude that leaked from a tanker following an accident would be recovered in the waters off the B.C. coast. In some cases that figure might be zero depending on weather conditions at the time – an issue of particular concern along the province's north coast where the climate can be hostile and volatile.
That is where most of the resistance to Enbridge's plans is based. There seems little that can be done to change that viewpoint. Certainly, the accord reached between the two Premiers on Tuesday won't alter that one bit. Coastal First Nations are adamant that Northern Gateway will not go ahead – under any circumstances. Perhaps the only thing that could change the conversation is David Black's proposed oil refinery, something highlighted by Premier Redford as a project B.C. could be interested in pursuing.
Refining Alberta crude before it was poured into oil tankers would certainly mitigate the environmental damage a spill would cause. While Mr. Black's plans still remain mostly a fascinating idea, they could be Enbridge's best hope for seeing their project go ahead.
It's too early to say where pipeline politics go from here but there are a couple of things to watch.
One is the political heat that Ms. Redford could take back home for her part in the five-condition pact. The agreement opens the door to B.C. placing a toll or tax on any oil that is moved in pipelines across the province. This is one way the province could reap more economic benefits from pipelines and something of this nature is almost a certainty now.
This is a matter of some controversy in Ms. Redford's province, where many have pointed out the fact that B.C. moves natural gas in pipelines across Alberta en route to markets in the U.S. (And has for years). It has never been tolled or taxed. Why, many wonder, would B.C. place a toll on Alberta energy products moving across B.C.?
B.C. believes that the environmental risks of moving heavy crude are far greater than they are for natural gas. And this is true. Still, Ms. Redford could receive some political heat for signing on to an agreement that could be interpreted as her endorsing a controversial strategy so B.C. can gain economic benefits Alberta doesn't get. Maybe Alberta will now start taxing B.C. natural gas entering its province.
When I asked Ms. Redford about this possibility on Tuesday she had this to say: "We don't think this is quid pro quo or gotcha politics. This is about putting in place economic models that are going to work for Canada, for each of our economies, and allow for products to move."
Don't expect her political enemies in Alberta to accept this explanation.
Gary Mason is a columnist in The Globe's Vancouver bureau.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford have reached a broad framework for an agreement to satisfy B.C.'s five conditions for supporting oil pipeline development in the province. Full story here.
(Source: Statement from Christy Clark, July 27, 2012)