In-Depth: the NDP position on oil tankers on B.C.'s coast

I’ve always been slightly put off by Earth Day. It’s nice to get together and march and listen to speeches with like-minded people, but it seemed to me to be a remnant of a by-gone era of environmentalism. I know it’s well-intentioned, but it felt stale with too much preaching to the converted and not enough real politics and organizing for my taste.

Suffice to say Earth Day, as generally celebrated, wasn’t inspiring for me. But I will always remember Adrian Dix’s Earth Day announcement of the NDP’s opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposal to bring hundreds of oil tankers through Vancouver, Victoria and the Gulf Islands.

At a press conference in Kamloops, Dix declared the expected increase in tanker traffic resulting from Kinder Morgan’s plan is not acceptable, stating he would not support any oil pipeline that would change “Vancouver’s harbour into a major oil export terminal.” Up until this announcement Dix and other NDP candidates had insisted the NDP would wait to see the formal application before responding to the Kinder Morgan proposal.

While both the federal and provincial NDP had strong positions against Enbridge’s oil tanker-pipeline proposal, until the Earth Day announcement they were less clear about Kinder Morgan’s plan to twin their oilsands pipeline to Burnaby and increase by six-fold the number of oil tankers transiting Vancouver’s harbour.

The History

Both the federal and provincial NDP have a history of aggressively opposing Enbridge’s proposal. The NDP’s public opposition to B.C. oil tanker proposals began in the federal NDP.

Former federal NDP MP Denise Savoie from Victoria was the first elected official in B.C. to explicitly oppose Enbridge’s oil tanker proposal. In 2007 she brought forward a Private Member’s Bill seeking a permanent oil tanker ban.

Federal NDP opposition to Enbridge escalated in December 2010, when the House of Commons passed a motion presented by Nathan Cullen calling for a legislated ban on crude oil tanker traffic off BC’s North Coast. The majority of parliamentarians in Ottawa, including all NDP, Bloc and Liberal MPs present, supported the motion with Tory MPs all voting against.

Although the B.C. NDP had been raising concerns about Enbridge’s proposal for a new Kitimat oil tanker port for many years, their opposition solidified after Adrian Dix became NDP leader in 2010. The NDP’s strengthening opposition culminated in the spring of 2012 with a letter to the National Energy Board (the federal body overseeing the panel reviewing Enbridge’s oil tanker proposal). The letter declared firm opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, saying in essence that Enbridge’s proposal was not worth the risk to our rivers, coast and the communities and local economies. To paraphrase, the NDP’s position is that Northern Gateway is not in B.C.’s environmental or economic interests.

Last summer Dix and the NDP clarified how they would stand up against Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Big Oil to kibosh Enbridge’s proposal. Dix’s NDP made two definitive commitments:

  1. “Within a week of taking office, we will serve the federal government with 30 days’ notice to terminate the 2010 deal in which the Liberals signed away B.C.’s interests.” By withdrawing from the “equivalency agreement” Dix would remove B.C. from the federal review process.
  2. Dix would also establish a made-in-B.C. “review process that would ensure that B.C.’s economic, social and environmental interests are fully addressed, that B.C.’s powers and responsibilities are properly exercised and that First Nations’ interests are recognized.”

In Kamloops Dix made clear that Kinder Morgan’s oil tanker-pipeline proposal would get a similar treatment. Dix promised “a rigorous, made-in-B.C. environmental assessment process” for both Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, indicating this would mean withdrawing from Gordon Campbell’s agreement with Ottawa (later endorsed by Christy Clark) stating the federal environmental assessment is equivalent to a B.C. assessment.

We expect to hear similar announcements from the federal NDP soon given several B.C. NDP parliamentarians, including  Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart and Esquimalt–Juan de Fuca MP Randall Garrison, are known to be vehemently opposed to Kinder Morgan’s proposal.

Pundits, including Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, have criticized Dix for taking a position before he has reviewed Kinder Morgan application. But parties and governments as a matter of policy should be clear when projects present an unacceptable category of risk.

Previous B.C. governments have done this to rule out nuclear power, coal-fired power, water exports, uranium mining, coastal oil drilling and many other projects perceived as being fundamentally too risky.  Dix is following these precedents in his recent announcement. In fact, he said, “Radically transforming the Port of Vancouver into a major oilsands export facility is not a good idea. It’s too much of a risk to our environment and our economy.”

When parties or governments make these decisions they are often based more on an assessment of provincial values, and less on detailed technical specifications. A company could still file an application, but most wouldn’t do so if it ran counter to current government policy. Instead of being criticized as anti-business, Dix should be praised for providing certainty so Kinder Morgan doesn’t waste its time and money pushing unwanted projects on an unwilling province.

Made-in-B.C.-Review

While Dix and the NDP continue to leave the door open to Kinder Morgan through the made-in-B.C. review, this is mostly for legal reasons. The legal opinion Dix commissioned last summer from Murray Rankin – now the NDP MP from Victoria – is believed to recommend this approach to bolster a NDP government’s litigation position in the event of a move by our Prime Minister to legally push Kinder Morgan’s project through against B.C.’s consent. There is disagreement among legal experts about whether a full review is necessary or whether there could be a pre-review screening process designating projects as red light, green light or yellow light based on an assessment of risks.

The majority of British Columbians believe both Kinder Morgan and Enbridge’s proposal are red light projects. Cynics are wary of the NDP living up to their commitments if they form government in the face of incredible pressure from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bay Street banks and Big Oil. Whoever is ultimately elected on May 14th must know British Columbians passionately oppose the expansion of oil tankers on our coast and if government doesn’t act accordingly, people will take the matter into their own hands and force them too. The next government doesn’t want oil tankers to become their HST.

There remains a long way to go toward permanently banning the expansion of oil tankers off our coast, but as someone who has spent years fighting to protect the B.C. coast, Earth Day 2013 will always stand out for me thanks to the NDP announcement on Kinder Morgan.

 

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