Skip to main content

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to reporters in the House of Commons foyer on March 31, 2014.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

Sometime next month, the federal government is expected to take action on a couple of key matters related to resource development on the West Coast.

It's anticipated Ottawa will move on a review released late last year by the Tanker Safety Expert Panel concerning Canada's oil spill preparedness and response regime. That report made 45 recommendations, including changing the liability limits polluters face and introducing measures to help facilitate faster spill response times.

Desperate to move public opinion in B.C. in favour of pipelines, it's inconceivable the government won't act on virtually all of the panel's suggestions.

As well, the Conservatives are expected to lay out a working strategy related to a report issued in December by Doug Eyford, the special envoy appointed to look into how the aboriginal community can become fuller partners in resource development. Again, Mr. Eyford made a raft of proposals – including increasing funding for aboriginal education and skills development and mandated consultation with First Nations groups regarding pipeline and marine safety.

It's expected the majority of the report's recommendations will be implemented, according to a source.

So what does this mean for Northern Gateway, the fate of which Ottawa is supposed to rule on in June?

To this point, it's a decision few can get a good read on, and if anything, recent developments have only muddied the waters.

For starters, there are rumblings of growing tension between Victoria and Ottawa over pipelines and the impact their potential presence on the West Coast could be having on negotiations between the B.C. government and First Nations around Liquefied Natural Gas development.

The term being used by some in the B.C. government to describe this problem is "cross threading." In the world of nuts and bolts, "cross threading" occurs when threads aren't aligned properly. In the world of energy politics, it happens when the interests of two levels of governments aren't in sync.

"It's becoming an issue," said a source with knowledge of the situation. "As Ottawa pushes the two oil pipelines one of the unintended consequences could be that First Nations communities on the natural gas pipeline routes could simply say no to natural gas if the feds are going to push the pipelines on B.C."

"This is a concern being raised by the provincial government. Victoria and Ottawa are on a bit of a collision course in terms of development of oil pipelines versus natural gas in B.C."

Meantime, companies such as Northern Gateway proponent, Enbridge, are left to wonder what will become of its venture.

Some believe Ottawa will ask the company to make changes to its proposal, including possibly reconsidering the pipeline's terminus at Kitimat. Recently, nearly 60 per cent of residents voted against having the pipeline end in their town. It is also where some of the most vocal aboriginal opposition to the project is centred.

Ideally, this would be something that Ottawa would be discussing with Enbridge now. However, there apparently hasn't been much dialogue between the federal government and the company since the National Energy Board came down with its report late last year approving the project subject to more than 200 conditions.

The federal government has apparently received legal advice that it would be inappropriate for there to be any dealings with the project proponent while there is an administrative process underway in the form of Ottawa's review of the NEB report. The downside of this opinion, as mentioned, is that it is inhibiting the ability of Ottawa and Enbridge to discuss what the next steps in the process should be.

Then again, maybe Ottawa has already made its decision and will leave it to Enbridge to sort out the remaining problems that flow from it.

Gary Mason is a columnist in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @garymasonglobe