Why Premier Clark said ‘No’ to Enbridge

Lots of people, particularly Eastern pundits, were surprised by B.C. Premier Clark’s decision to formally reject Enbridge’s oil tanker and pipeline proposal to ship Alberta crude oil through B.C. to China and other Asian markets.

We weren’t.

Why?  Simply because its good politics.

I’ll explain.

Premier Clark has staked her political future on rapidly ramping up Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) exports from B.C. It was the centerpiece both of her jobs plan and the cash cow that would help her claw her way out of significant budget deficits.

Anything but a strong NO to Enbridge would have raised the ire of northern First Nations and communities – those whom she quickly needs to appease to fast track her LNG plans. Simply put, a YES to Enbridge would have – as UBC Prof George Hoberg recently said – unleashed a backlash of civil disobedience unprecedented in our province’s history, as well as potentially spurred a citizen initiative similar to the HST referendum, which could seriously derail her government’s priorities.

The second reason is that despite what some eastern pundits may claim, pro-oil tanker and pro-pipeline positions are politically toxic in B.C. What’s been lost in the myriad of opinion editorials claiming the tanker issue is what cost the NDP the election is the fact that Christy Clark campaigned on ‘Standing up for BC.’ Her ‘protect B.C. against Alberta and Ottawa’ rhetoric served her well in the elections campaign, insulating her from what was substantively a weaker policy position than the NDP.

Also lost in the media coverage so far is the fact that not one MLA was elected who had a pro-oil tanker or pro pipeline position:

MLA’s who opposed or raised serious concerns about oil tanker proposals = 85

MLA’s who supported oil tanker proposals = 0

Despite the rejection, backed by a thorough and compelling technical submission, there were aspects of the B.C. government’s news release that raise concerns. The repeated use of the phrase “as presented to the Joint Review Panel” to qualify their rejection raises the possibility of some post-review secret deal. These weasel words, combined with Minister Lake’s comments yesterday after a meeting in Alberta where he said he saw a “path to Yes,” raises questions about the possibility of further negotiations between Clark’s government, Alberta, Ottawa and Enbridge outside of public process.

It is true: Ottawa could still try pushing through an approval for Enbridge while relying on promises to make the project better after the review. However, the public process is now over, so this would mean any changes Enbridge might make to their proposal would presumably be evaluated behind closed doors. After the HST backlash, it would be political suicide for either Harper or Clark to make backroom changes to their position on such a controversial proposal.

Another problem with a backroom, post-review deal with Ottawa and Alberta is that it would completely undermine the JRP process as well as future review processes. Why would 1,161 people make oral presentations to the JRP or why would interveners waste countless hours reviewing testimony and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers if proposals can get revised and approved post-review through backroom negotiations? This approach would open up more legal and political risks than it would solve. Imagine what would happen to the upcoming regulatory review of the Kinder Morgan proposal if Victoria and Ottawa bring out the gaffers tape and approve Enbridge post review?

Another reason Clark’s opposition to Enbridge isn’t a surprise is that by all accounts she is a federal Liberal at heart. After the largest perceived election comeback in Canadian history, Clark is in a strong position to play hardball with Harper. Clark successfully cozied up to Tory-aligned interests to unify the so-called ‘Free Enterprise’ vote before and during the election, but insiders indicate it was always a forced marriage. Most of her closest advisors – including her ex-husband who’s rumoured to be on the short list as Justin Trudeau’s point man in B.C. – align with the Grits and not the Tories.

Given the massive opposition from across the political spectrum – Dogwood Initiative alone has more than 150,000 No Tankers supporters – and the federal Liberals long-standing opposition to the expansion of oil tankers in B.C. (going all the way back to Justin’s dad), the Liberal brand is enhanced by a firm NO position and a face-off with Harper.

In fact, polls suggest ‘Standing Strong Against Oil Tankers’ is perhaps the best issue in B.C. to differentiate Grits from the Tories and rebuild support for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Given the collapse of the provincial Conservatives, her unexpected comeback, her deep political ties to the Grits and her desire to fast track LNG, Clark’s decision to reject Enbridge as it stands makes a great deal of political sense.

 

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