The B.C. legislature will be recalled on Tuesday for a pre-election session that promises to be dominated by campaign theatre. The governing BC Liberals will have their Throne Speech and budget, and one or two signature bills crafted for maximum voter appeal. The opposition will take every available opportunity inside and outside of the House to persuade voters that they have better ideas.
Somewhere in between all that activity, there will be a bit of legislative housekeeping – there is still a government to run.
One detail the government needs to attend to is its obligation to improve oil spill response on land. In agreeing to support the Trans Mountain heavy oil pipeline project, the province demanded "world-leading" marine spill response from the federal government and a cash deal from Kinder Morgan. But it has not yet delivered on its best practices to spill response on land.
This spring, the government is set to bring new spill response regulations into force and it has promised $2.5-million in the coming budget to provide more environmental emergency response officers, as well as more equipment.
Those changes are supposed to result in "world-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines."
How is the province doing right now? It's difficult to say. The province regulates more than 43,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines, but its "fully transparent" online map that allows the public to see pipeline spills has been dark since June, 2016. The online news magazine DeSmog Canada reported the problem last October, and was assured the system was down for maintenance. Now the commission says a new improved incident map should be online by the end of March.
The most recent report detailing spills involving provincially regulated pipelines is from 2015, when there were 45 spills and near misses reported, including seven involving crude oil pipelines. How much, if any, oil was spilled is not included in the report. When pressed for more current information, government officials were able to share preliminary numbers for 2016 showing an increase to 49 incidents, and "the majority are considered minor."
In a province where the public debate over increased oil pipeline capacity has consumed so much energy, the lack of transparency about the province's management of its existing system is surprising.
The Kinder Morgan pipeline may yet be a wedge issue in the provincial election, but for now, it is not what the politicians want to debate.
Premier Christy Clark and her BC Liberals want to talk about their vision for B.C. – why they deserve a fifth term in office. The Speech from the Throne on Tuesday will feature a variation of her remarks to reporters last week: "Our vision will talk about some basic, fundamental things that make B.C. better," she said. "What makes B.C. better – and the reason that immigrants have been coming from all over the world for 150 years to build our province – is because they want a chance at a great job with good wages, they want to have a chance to own their own home, they want a chance to have more money to put in their pocket to spend how they see fit, and they want to make sure their kids get a great education."
That means the budget will highlight more funding for education and housing affordability, as well as tax cuts of some sort. The government will take credit for job creation where employment has grown and will promise a rural investment strategy in those regions where jobs are disappearing.
NDP Opposition Leader John Horgan doesn't get to lay out his vision in a budget but he will have his chance to field test his campaign themes. In a recent interview, he indicated his preferred topics will highlight where the government has fallen short, on protecting vulnerable children and youth, on education funding, and on campaign finance reform. This is a "time for a change" message that the New Democrats hope will resonate with voters.
The urgency for both sides of the House to focus on their core messages is driven by the calendar. The MLAs will be itching to get out of the House by mid-March, giving them a few weeks back in their ridings to prepare for the election campaign that starts – officially – on April 11. The grinding details of government will have to wait.