As decision day on the Northern Gateway pipeline draws closer, it seems more likely that Ottawa will green-light the contentious project. But that doesn't mean it's certain to get built.
The government is statutorily obliged to hand down a decision within six months of the National Energy Board's comprehensive review of the proposal, which was released in December. The NEB approved the project subject to Enbridge meeting a list of 209 conditions. Of course, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could doubtlessly find a way to put off making a decision until a later date, but that seems unlikely.
Firstly, it would be difficult for the Prime Minister to stall on Gateway, while publicly stewing about U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to do exactly the same thing on the Keystone XL pipeline. Like Gateway, Keystone cleared the last government-conducted environmental review of the project when the U.S. State Department said the project would not significantly increase carbon pollution. And yet, Mr. Obama again decided to "punt" the final decision until another time.
That time may well be after his presidency is finished.
Mr. Harper has said that economic forces and the best science – not politics – ultimately determine whether these projects get built. If he delays making a decision on Gateway or kills the plan altogether, it would be perceived to be for political reasons. And it would look incredibly hypocritical to his base, among others.
A recent conversation I had with a senior member of Mr. Harper's government also shed light on the government's thinking. While insisting that a final verdict has yet to be reached, this person sounded like someone getting ready to defend what will undoubtedly be a controversial call.
Even if Gateway and the Kinder Morgan expansion went ahead, he argued, B.C. would still only see about 60 per cent of the annual oil tanker traffic the neighbouring state of Washington deals with. And yet Washington has an exceptionally clean record when it comes to the safe transport of oil in and out of its harbours – this, he noted, while operating under marine safety regulations that are not as rigorous as the ones Ottawa intends to put in place for the shipment of oil along the West Coast.
These new protocols are expected to be announced some time in May, I might add.
While acknowledging that there is opposition to the project in British Columbia, the Conservative member said that Mr. Harper has to consider what's in the national interest. "At the end of the day, you have to do what's right, not what's politically expedient," he said. "You have to ask: What's in the best interests of all Canadians?"
Still, there is a raw political calculus that needs to be taken into account. Polls measuring support for the project in B.C. vary, but generally have shown that anywhere from 55 to 60 per cent of the province opposes Gateway and 40 to 45 per cent support it. Isn't that enough to scare off a government that needs critical votes in B.C. to win another majority?
"Let's say 60 per cent are against it," he said. "And that vote splits between the Liberals and the NDP come the next election. Who are the 40 per cent going to vote for?"
There is no question that aboriginal opposition to the project is a monumental hurdle to overcome. But my sense is that the Tories will not make it their issue – leaving it to Enbridge to try and work out deals with various native constituencies by offering larger equity stakes in the project or other incentives.
"I think once this decision is made, Enbridge could have shovels in the ground the next day," the member said. "They are ready to go. This means the First Nations could start realizing profits from this right away, as opposed to the promised profits from LNG, which may never materialize. I think they need to think about that."
There seems little doubt that the whole matter will end up in court, but again, that is fight that Ottawa will leave to Enbridge and its lawyers. The federal government will play its part in meeting the five conditions laid out by the B.C. government for support of the project, but the most contentious of those terms, native support and money, will be left to Enbridge to sort out.
If Northern Gateway doesn't get built, I suspect it won't be because the federal government stood in its way.