September 6, 2016 – Vancouver Sun
VICTORIA — Recent developments on the national stage make it increasingly likely British Columbian’s are headed for another election where the proposed twinning of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline will be a divisive issue.
Last week in Montreal, it took a handful of protesters less than an hour to disrupt national energy board hearings into the Energy East pipeline proposal, underscore a potential conflict of interest at the NEB, and cast further doubt on whether that project will ever secure support in Quebec.
Then came the news that the federal government was preparing to formalize a moratorium on crude oil tankers off the northwest coast of B.C. thereby making it impossible for the Northern Gateway pipeline to go ahead.
With Northern Gateway already in the morgue and Energy East in the regulatory equivalent of intensive care, that puts Kinder Morgan at the forefront as an all-Canadian option to get Alberta crude to tidewater.
The West Coast routing would dovetail with one of the themes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s just-completed trade mission to China, the wish to do more business with Beijing particularly in energy products.
But this confluence of events on the national scene comes at a politically-charged time for the B.C. Liberals in their bid for a fifth term.
The country’s Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is on record as saying that the federal cabinet will make the final call on Kinder Morgan before the end of the year.
Presuming the project were to be green-lighted with conditions — and it would be hard to reconcile outright rejection with the stated goal of getting more Canadian oil to world markets — that would put Kinder Morgan on the front burner heading into B.C. election 2017.
It also played a pivotal role in the 2013 campaign. New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix came out against the project just 10 days after declaring he would await the outcome of regulatory hearings before taking a position one way or another. While some NDP supporters now downplay the significance of Dix’s flip-flop on Kinder Morgan, the party’s own post-mortem on a losing campaign left no doubt about the impact.
“Within three days, under withering fire in the media, our tracking registered the largest drop in our support we would see. Many analysts have since argued, fairly persuasively in our view, that this was the decisive moment of the campaign.
“It gave the Liberals an opening to turn our apparent inconsistency into a character issue about our leader … and it simultaneously allowed them to build on their argument that changing the government was too economically risky — their core case for re-election.”
For all that, the election did not really settle the question of support for or against Kinder Morgan. (Is anything ever settled in the B.C. political arena?)
Project opponents, including the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, carried on as if nothing happened. Environmental activists, while never reaching the panel-storming, police-summoning antics on display in Montreal last week, maintained a formidable protest campaign.
Nor did the re-elected B.C. Liberals treat the NDP defeat as an unqualified endorsement of Kinder Morgan. Rather they stuck by the position taken before the election, that provincial support for any pipeline to move heavy oil through B.C. was contingent meeting five conditions.
They reiterated the five conditions in May of this year when the National Energy Board gave qualified approval to the project. But the Liberals also admitted, “a significant amount of work has already gone toward establishing and meeting the five conditions.”
The biggest gap still to be closed is on the provincial insistence for a world-class regime to minimize the risk oil spills in the marine environment and to manage and mitigate same in the event any do occur.
There is also the requirement that British Columbia “receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy-oil project that reflect the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.”
On the former, federal approval is expected to include funding and regulatory commitments to put in place the necessary protection for the marine environment. On the latter, B.C. has floated the suggestion that Alberta agree to buy B.C. hydroelectric power as a way of reducing reliance on coal and natural gas fired generation.
One scenario would see Trudeau, Notley and B.C. Premier Christy Clark joining together in endorsing the pipeline as being in the national economic interest.
Such a deal could satisfy the prime minister’s agenda while allowing Notley to answer her critics at home and Clark to challenge the B.C. New Democrats for opposing a project essential to the survival of the only NDP government in the country.
With so many matters still to be sorted out on this file, it would take an extraordinary act of political will on the part of three governments to put such a national deal in place by next May.
More likely, B.C. is headed for another election with much talk about Kinder Morgan but no final resolution on whether the controversial twinning of the existing pipeline will actually go ahead.