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A giant piece of pipeline is placed in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, August 31, 2010. The pipeline was brought there by opponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project which would see a gas pipeline built in northern B.C. Following months of hearings, years of debate and dozens of protests, the federal panel reviewing the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline has been given the green light by the Joint Review Panel, with 209 conditions.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

An oil pipeline to the west coast is now a more concrete prospect, and the politics around it will change.

Pipeline politics are now a central issue in Canada, but the Northern Gateway is unique: it means oil super-tankers plying pristine waters. Now the political debate about Gateway is likely to become less about the pipeline itself and more about those tankers.

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This proposed pipeline, from Alberta to a port in Kitimat, B.C., is a wedge issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have declared it a priority in the national interest, but both the NDP and the Liberals are against it. It's a symbol in a broader political issue: balancing resource-industry growth with environmental protection.

For Mr. Harper, the Gateway is key resource strategy: getting oilsands bitumen to market outside North America, to diversify markets. Delays in approval for the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. sparked Mr. Harper to make shipping oil to Asia a high-level priority. But his opponents are set to argue he'll support any way to sell oil, even a dangerously risky one – and the possibility of a major oil spill from a tanker, another Exxon Valdez, will be the symbol.

Approval for the Northern Gateway from the Joint Review Panel, even with 209 conditions, is a tool the Conservatives can use to argue that it's safe. But both opposition parties will seek to diminish the report by arguing the Tories politicized the review, trying to ram through approval. The possibility of a major tanker spill in B.C.'s coastal waters is the political battleground.

A thumbs-up from the review panel puts a decision on the Gateway pipeline into the hands of a Conservative government that's itching to approve it. Despite the prospect that First Nations lawsuits will tie it up for years, the pipeline is a more real proposal now, and the implications – the giant tankers – will get more attention. And that's the most unpopular part of the plan.

An Insights West poll conducted in November found 47 per cent of respondents in B.C. were opposed to the Gateway pipeline, and 42 per cent in favour. But 88 per cent said they were concerned about an increase in tanker traffic, and 85 per cent worried about the risk of an oil spill.

Another firm, Justason Market Intelligence, has found far higher levels of opposition to Northern Gateway when the question includes super-tankers – about 66 per cent opposed a year ago. In February, it found a similar proportion, 67 per cent, opposed to tankers in B.C.'s inland Coastal waters. The firm's principal, Barb Justason, said when more people link the pipeline to tankers, opposition stiffens.

The Gateway is, in a sense, a pipeline to Asia, so it's always been a proposal that required shipping oil on tankers – through the Douglas Channel, via a hard-to-navigate route that often includes harsh storms, past rich marine life. But apparently, even people in B.C. more attuned to the debate, don't always immediately associate the pipeline with super-tankers.

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Opponents will make that a focal point now. On Wednesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made it clear that he intends to drive home that point: "Allowing super-tankers into the Douglas Channel is madness and it should not take place," he said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will make that point, too: unlike the NDP, he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, arguing oilsands bitumen must get to market. But he has opposed the Northern Gateway as too risky, primarily because it means super-tankers in B.C.'s inland coastal waters, and the possibility of a spill.

There are already oil tankers in B.C. waters – the Trans-Mountain pipeline carries oil to port in Burnaby, B.C. A proposal to twin that pipeline to carry far more oil is controversial because it would increase tanker traffic in Vancouver's port. Bringing tankers into the Douglas Channel is even more controversial.

Even the Joint Review Panel's approval won't dispel all public doubt that one massive spill would be calamitous. It found a spill, while unlikely, would have a significant impact, but that the risk could be mitigated with clean-up plans. However, a blue-ribbon review recently found industry and government are not prepared to handle a major spill.

That makes tankers the political issue. B.C.'s provincial government, giving themselves political wiggle room, set five conditions for approving the pipeline, including world-leading spill clean-up plans, without saying what that means. Opponents will argue there's no guarantee against a lasting disaster like the Exxon Valdez. Mr. Harper's government will argue that tankers are built better now, and seek to assure that clean-up plans make it safe. The symbol at the centre of pipeline politics will be the tankers in the port.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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