It's hard to portray Jim Prentice's decision to seek the leadership of the Alberta Tories as anything but a bad sign for Enbridge Inc. and its Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.
By doing so, the former federal cabinet minister cuts short his work on behalf of the pipeline company convincing skeptical British Columbia First Nations that their inclusion in the project would ensure both the economic benefits they need and the environmental protection they demand.
It may be an indication that Mr. Prentice has hit a brick wall with some of the most staunchly opposed native groups just weeks from an expected approval of the $7.9-billion pipeline by the Harper government. A federal green light is not likely to put the issue to rest, at least not with some B.C. native groups.
Enbridge CEO Al Monaco is under no illusions here. On the day after Northern Gateway won conditional clearance from the National Energy Board in December, Mr. Monaco said his company had to keep striving to repair relationships that were strained before and during often-contentious hearings. Part of the reason is legal – some aboriginal leaders have promised court challenges over land rights and title should Northern Gateway win final approval.
That, of course, could mean indefinite delays, and keep Alberta oil producers and the province's government wishing and hoping that some day, somehow, oil sands-derived crude could make its way to Asian markets in large and frequent cargoes.
That's where Mr. Prentice came in. A former Indian Affairs minister who earned the respect of First Nations across the country, he had advocated for native people to share in resource developments. In fact, he contended that industry would not be able to gain access to the West Coast for oil exports without their participation.
So in March, Mr. Prentice took a break from his day job as executive vice-president and vice-chairman of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to consult with First Nations. Viewed as an ace in the hole for Enbridge and the would-be Northern Gateway shipper, he said at the time that he agreed to the secondment only when Enbridge promised it was open to changing its tack.
"I'm satisfied they are fully committed to the types of dialogue that I think are necessary about the environment and about real economic partnerships with First Nations," he said barely two months ago. The work was supposed to continue through September.
In that time, Alison Redford lost her grip on power in Alberta and the province's venerable Progressive Conservative Party ship listed badly. Mr. Prentice's name was one of the first put forward as a possible successor as leader, and on Monday his spokesman confirmed he would run.
(With the Tories trailing the rival Wildrose Party in the polls by a country mile, he'll again be tasked with a lot of relationship rebuilding if he wins, this time with Albertans.)
So where does this leave the Northern Gateway cause? A source close to the file says that Mr. Prentice's team remains intact and committed. It will keep building on the groundwork that he has laid toward an agreement.
Meanwhile, one of his political supporters, Calgary lawyer Brian Felesky, says that should Mr. Prentice become premier, his stature will bolster efforts to bring together industry and First Nations interests in the quest for market access for Alberta crude.
Enbridge said it is pleased with the progress Mr. Prentice made starting the dialogue with First Nations and that it respects that he needs to make his own decisions about his future.
However, some B.C. native groups that have been front and centre in their opposition to Northern Gateway weren't being swayed despite Mr. Prentice's involvement.
"They're basically trying to resuscitate a project with so much against it," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine West Coast communities. "That was our message to Jim: that there's weaknesses in what this industry's proposing that haven't been solved through the regulatory process and those would have to be dealt with before we could even have a conversation about whether increased economic benefits or anything else might be considered."
It's a comment that suggests the job is far from done, at least to Enbridge's satisfaction.