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How B.C. could hold up Northern Gateway even if Harper wants it

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is photographed during her annual year end interview at the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria, B.C. Monday December 9, 2013.

Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It was a subtle warning, raised twice during a pivotal news conference on British Columbia's conditions for approving such heavy-oil projects as the Northern Gateway pipeline.

But almost two years later the B.C. government says it remains serious about using construction permits and access to power to block heavy oil projects given a green light over its objections.

That could mean new trouble ahead on the already rocky road for Gateway, which the B.C. Liberal government opposes.

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The final decision on whether or not to approve the controversial $8-billion pipeline has fallen to the cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, following the approval of the project by a federal joint review panel, subject to 209 conditions. While Mr. Harper has talked about the need to protect the environment, he has also touted the need for Canada to expand its markets for Canadian energy. That suggests better than even odds of Gateway approval.

A green light could spark protests by environmentalists, First Nations – and construction permit trouble from a B.C. government emboldened with a majority win in last spring's provincial election.

The permit card has survived a lot. It was played at a time when, according to the polls and conventional wisdom, B.C. Premier Christy Clark seemed destined to lose the looming provincial election. Alberta Premier Alison Redford had dismissed the five B.C. conditions for supporting heavy oil projects.

Since then, however, Ms. Clark won a majority government over the opposition NDP. And Ms. Clark and Ms. Redford have come to agreement on the five conditions, which include world-class spill response and B.C.'s "fair share" of the fiscal and economic benefits of such projects.

Use of the tactic by the B.C. government could also cause stresses in a relationship between Victoria and Ottawa that has been largely harmonious, notwithstanding disputes over closing a coast guard rescue station in Vancouver and disputes over job-grants policy.

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak was unavailable for an interview. Pressed on the issue, however, her office used a statement to reiterate the option of withholding about 60 permits related to the construction of pipelines the province does not approve.

Much of the statement issued earlier this week reiterated the tenets of government policy, but the last point noted, "As previously stated by Premier (Christy) Clark and (then environment minister Terry Lake), British Columbia has the authority to grant or withhold approximately 60 permits related to pipeline construction."

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In July 2012, Ms. Polak – then aboriginal-relations minister – stood alongside Mr. Lake as he was twice asked during a news conference in Vancouver what B.C. would do to stop a pipeline project it opposed.

His second go at the question yielded the most complete answer – one worth considering as the federal cabinet prepares to take the Gateway debate to the next stage.

"Even if they were to approve it at the NEB, there are scores of provincial permits that will be necessary, and we will have to give due consideration to each one of those in terms of the criteria that are around those permits, the necessary commitments that are made around those permits," Mr. Lake said.

Mr. Lake added there was one other issue – "being able to supply the power necessary through BC Hydro."

The B.C. government opposes Gateway. It formally rejected the 1,177-kilometre Gateway pipeline last May, declaring the company has failed to explain, to B.C.'s satisfaction, how it would deal with a major spill on land or in coastal waters.

Asked about the matter, Gateway spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said the project proponents are focused on trying to meet B.C.'s five conditions for approval of heavy-oil projects.

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Ian Bailey is a reporter in The Globe's Vancouver bureau.

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