The road to election success in BC is paved with pipeline pitfalls.
AS THE PROVINCIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN revs into high gear, parties are attempting to cement their own positions on the Trans Mountain pipeline, while searching for cracks and signs of ambilvalence in those of their opponents.
When the mix includes heavy oil, coastline protection, First Nations’ rights, jobs, firmly entrenched opinions, and provincial (and inter-provincial and federal) politics, however, getting to a clear position seems not perfectly straighforward. Just ask former NDP leader Adrian Dix about the consequences of unexpected pipeline pronouncements.
Dix, who announced his opposition to the pipeline expansion mid-campaign in 2013, shouldered much of the blame for the NDP defeat and particularly the loss of seats in the interior of the province where pipeline construction was expected to generate jobs. Clark’s Liberals, on the other hand, managed to appear to keep an open mind while sowing doubt about the NDP’s ability to deliver a healthy economic future for the province.
As 2017 party platforms take shape, however, some question whether the NDP lost votes because of opposition to the pipeline or because Dix was seen to have flip-flopped.
The only certainties are that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will be an election issue and that all parties will be attempting to emphasize consistency as the campaign gets underway.
“I don’t know how many people were annoyed with Adrian Dix because of Kinder Morgan in its own right and how many were annoyed that he was inconsistent,” said Jamie Lawson, University of Victoria political scientist. Today, Lawson added, there is a different economic backdrop and few full-time jobs are at stake, which could affect how people vote. The project, which will triple the amount of diluted bitumen pumped from Alberta’s oil sands to Burnaby, is expected to result in only 50 full-time jobs once construction is completed.
The score is Greens and NDP opposed and Liberals almost certainly in favour, with Premier Christy Clark announcing at a news conference, the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced federal approval for the $6.8-billion project, that most of her five conditions have been substantially addressed.
The conditions include world-leading marine and land oil spill response and prevention, First Nations participation and benefits, a fair share of economic benefits, and successful environmental reviews. Clark said her government is still working with Ottawa on spill response and more assurances on jobs and economic benefits for BC.
Clark’s optimism that all conditions will be met was tempered last month by a letter to the federal government from Environment Minister Mary Polak listing 10 gaps in marine spill response.
And for British Columbians on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, that marine spill response and prevention condition is the pivotal issue as concern is centred on the prospect of a seven-fold increase in the number of tankers plying the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, increasing tanker traffic from five to 34 vessels a month.
That concern translates into a potential loss of Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island seats for the Liberals. As Professor Lawson explained, “For the Liberals the worry would be suburban Vancouver and Lower Mainland. The Kinder Morgan pipeline runs straight through rich Liberal territory.”
For the NDP, visceral worries about a spill are likely to work in their favour and the party will be helped by leader John Horgan’s understanding of tourism and fishing interests in rural and semi-rural areas, Lawson said. “These are people who are annoyed and worried about more tanker traffic. These are real economic concerns of real people who live outside the latté zone of Vancouver and Victoria,” he said.
The NDP is emphasizing that their opposition has been consistent since 2013, but the party is already under attack by the Liberals and Greens for lack of consistency, and a video tweeted on the Liberal caucus website attempts to resurrect the flip-flop accusations.
The video features Horgan as a weathervane, switching from a 2013 quote that it was appropriate for Kinder Morgan to go ahead, to current statements that Kinder Morgan cannot go forward.
However, the weathervane symbol might also be appropriate for Clark, suggested Lawson. “She has said here are our five conditions and frankly they are five conditions that sound good as slogans, but also work beautifully as weathervane policies. What is a world-class spill protection program? What does that actually look like and what are some of the other elements in that set of conditions? What do they really come down to?” asked Lawson.
“It comes down to, it is what the cabinet says it is, which allows them to look very consistent so long as they don’t have to make a decision…The terminology in those five conditions is such that they can approve it or not approve it and say they were consistent with their policy.”
George Heyman, NDP environment spokesman, scoffed at the weathervane video and pointed to Horgan’s letter to the National Energy Board listing reasons why Kinder Morgan should not proceed, and his own presentation to the Senate Transport and Communications Committee in September.
The New Democrat position on Kinder Morgan has been clear since the last election, he said. “The risk to the environment and the economy is too great and we will use every means available to us, if and when we are elected, to find a way to stop this project,” he said.
The Liberals are misleading people about their position by saying there are five hard- and-fast conditions when, in fact, they turned down the chance to do a made-in-BC environmental assessment and agreed to accept the results of the Harper-era assessment, Heyman said. “That was the best tool that BC had and Christy Clark gave that up,” he said.
The courts have subsequently ruled that BC must do an assessment and results are expected shortly.
Heyman doubts that the NDP will lose votes over its Kinder Morgan opposition, as he believes that most British Columbians understand the economic catastrophe that would follow a diluted bitumen spill on the coast, and he is confident that most party members support the position. There was discussion in caucus about the party’s decision, but there is no division, he said.
However, former NDP premier and cabinet minister Dan Miller is among New Democrats who believe the party should be supporting the project. “I am 72 this month and I try to think of my country once in a while,” he said, criticizing people who “set their hair on fire” when any development is proposed. “If the oilsands were in BC, wouldn’t we be looking to export that?” he asked, pointing out that revenues are needed to address pressing issues such as child poverty.
While the two major parties hold their ground on opposite sides of the issue, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver is emphasizing that only the Greens have consistently said that heavy oil tankers should be banned from the BC coast because there is no way to clean up a spill of diluted bitumen. It comes down to a matter of trust, and that is what BC voters will be looking for in May, he said.
“The NDP have been all over the place on this, and the Liberals have these loosey-goosey five conditions which are a wonderful political calculation, but in terms of them being met, what are the criteria? They have never been outlined,” Weaver said.
“I can say unequivocally that the BC Greens are opposed to diluted bitumen in our waters, because you simply cannot clean it up,” said Weaver, who would support going a step further and doing an assessment on diluted bitumen being moved through the existing pipeline.
Weaver believes that there are clear signs that the NDP is looking for a way to support the project, possibly by having Kinder Morgan move the terminus from Burnaby to Roberts Bank or to Cherry Point in the US, and pointed to an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun by former NDP premier Mike Harcourt suggesting exactly that.
“Mr Horgan has said at least three times in the past that he supports this project and I think he is seeing how to get to yes, and at the same time alleviate the concerns of the people in Vancouver,” Weaver speculated.
Look carefully at words being used, said Weaver, pointing to a statement by Horgan that the terminus of the existing pipe in Burnaby may have made sense in 1950, but it does not make sense in 2017 to have a superport in the heart of Vancouver. “Where he’s going with this, is he thinks this is a big compromise that he thinks he can get a win on,” Weaver said.
While the parties scramble for position, however, the final decision may eventually rest with the courts, not politicians, as seven lawsuits challenging the National Energy Board’s report have already been filed and more are expected.
Chris Tollefson, University of Victoria law professor and founding executive director of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre, said it is increasingly clear that the process was so flawed that Cabinet did not have the best available science in front of them when they made the decision.
“I can predict that we will still be talking about this in two years,” he said. “This is the kind of case that ultimately could well be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues.
Edited by admin