Is Clark trying to get to “yes”?

Christy Clark has been saying it since July 2012: to win her support as Premier, any bitumen transport project to the B.C. coast would have to meet five key conditions. In the case of Enbridge Northern Gateway, three of those conditions are about to be checked off.

The first, “successful completion of the environmental review process,” was taken care of when the National Energy Board gave the thumbs-up to Northern Gateway in December (the regulator, which is funded by industry, maintains a flawless 100 per cent pipeline approval rate).

Conditions two and three cover “world-leading” oil spill response systems on land and sea. What does “world-leading” mean? Nobody seems to have a precise definition, and perhaps that’s the point. In any event, the bar is low.

Consider Western Canada Marine Response Corp (WCMRC), the industry-funded cleanup company currently responsible for saltwater spills on the B.C. coast.

When Canada’s then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver swung through Vancouver last year for a photo op, he wanted WCMRC’s flagship Burrard Cleaner No. 9 in the background. On the way to Oliver’s press conference the vessel ran aground on a sand bar, after narrowly avoiding a collision with a ferry.

I’ve spoken to sources familiar with WCMRC’s maritime mishaps who say that’s not even the worst of it (if any journalists out there want a great story, they should find out what happened to Burrard Cleaner No. 4 on the way to the Zalinski cleanup last fall). That was around the time Christy Clark called existing spill response systems “woefully underresourced“.

One glance at WCMRC’s current flotilla shows Clark was simply stating the obvious. It was a good negotiating tactic. Word has it the federal government is preparing an announcement on the subject any day now.

That rumour is supported by Mary Polak, the provincial environment minister, who suddenly had quite nice things to say about WCMRC last week. So a bit of extra federal money should take care of condition number two.

(UPDATE: Shortly after this blog was posted the federal government did indeed announce upgrades to Canada’s “world-class tanker safety system“. Measures include asking industry to pay for marine spill cleanup costs up to $1.36 billion. One UBC study estimates a single tanker spill could cost nearly $10 billion. Presumably taxpayers would soak up the difference.)

As Gordon Hoekstra has reported for the Vancouver Sun, Polak wants to use our “world-class” marine spill model as the basis for a new industry-funded land spill regime. That would cover condition number three.

But if First Nations and British Columbians want to hold Christy Clark to her election promises and stop the Northern Gateway pipeline, I don’t recommend debating over conditions one through three. They’re subjective and technical – too easy for politicians to spin. It’s time to jump down the list and start actively defining conditions four and five.

Christy Clark’s fourth condition requires that “Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed”. In plain English, that means First Nations that would be affected by Enbridge’s pipeline or oil tankers need to say yes to the project.

That doesn’t appear likely. And unless the Yinka Dene Alliance, the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs, Coastal First Nations and everyone else along every inch of that pipeline gives their consent for it to be built, we all need to hold Christy Clark to account on her fourth condition.

At minimum, “meeting legal requirements” means First Nations aren’t suing the feds and province for screwing up the consultation process or trampling Canada’s own constitution. If any such case is launched (and a number are in the works) condition four won’t be met until the courts have ruled on every last one.

Meanwhile, condition five requires “British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits.” So what’s a fair share? That’s not up to politicians to haggle over behind closed doors. It’s up to British Columbians. It’s up to you.

As the Government of B.C. wrote in its submission to the Joint Review Panel, our province would assume 100 per cent of the environmental and economic risks from an oil tanker spill, and 58 per cent of the risks of a freshwater spill (based on the length of the pipeline).

Given the fact that bitumen sinks in water, many voters will say there is no price at which they would accept the risks of Enbridge’s project.

Others would be willing to see what Enbridge is offering. The problem for Enbridge is its business case relies on British Columbians being very bad at math.

The pipeline would export billions of dollars’ worth of unrefined bitumen, destined for refineries and manufacturers in Asia. Meanwhile, Canada imports refined gasoline from the United States, light crude from the Middle East, and plastic goods from Asia.

It’s like shipping away raw logs and buying back the furniture. Pipeline proponents argue the benefits from selling all that bitumen would even out the economic losses. For them, maybe.

The fact is, 100 per cent of the royalties would stay in Alberta. B.C. would take all the risk for 0 per cent of that reward.

In terms of total tax revenue, the B.C. government calculates it would collect 8 per cent of the pie, while 92 per cent went to Alberta, Ottawa, and the other provinces.

The entire contribution of revenues related to Northern Gateway would add up to half of one percent of the B.C. provincial budget. Yet taxpayers would suffer economic losses in the billions in the event of a major spill.

Finally, Enbridge’s submission to the Joint Review Panel makes it clear the project would create exactly 204 long-term jobs in our province – though they can’t guarantee they would hire British Columbians.

Is that a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits?

If you think it is, I’d love to hear your rationale.

On the other hand, if the citizens of B.C. decide Enbridge is offering us an unfair deal, our premier can’t check off condition number five. It’s time to start having that debate.

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