Pipeline politics – party style

Sometimes I’m surprised by how strongly people look to elected representatives for leadership. To get things done, in my experience, its best to assume politicians are followers, not leaders: build a big enough parade and politicians will crawl over each other to get out in front.

Our job as advocates is not to go begging on bended knee to negotiate policy options. Our job is to build to biggest, broadest, most diverse parade we can.

That doesn’t mean politicians and political parties are meaningless, however. They do have a role, just not as powerful as some may believe. Ultimately, we must rely on government to pass laws on important things like prohibiting pollutants, mandating work safety standards and banning oil tankers in fragile waters.

So how do we get governments to take the right actions? If you’re a fan of Netflix’s House of Cards like I am, you know the days of party policy being driven by ideology are over. Today it’s all about vote counting.

This is the philosophy underlying our Stand Up for BC campaign to prepare for a citizens initiative if Ottawa and Victoria try to force unwanted pipeline and oil tanker projects through. If we get big enough and organized enough, decision makers in Ottawa and Victoria will have to listen. If they don’t, we will invoke Canada’s only direct democracy tool – British Columbia’s citizen initiative legislation – and force them to listen.

But before you begin any long hard trek, it’s always smart to check out the lay of the land. In this case that means delving into the various federal and provincial party positions on oil tanker and pipeline proposals.

Enbridge’s proposal to bring 225 crude oil supertankers to northern B.C.’s coastal waters and bisect province with two pipelines.

Two in three British Columbians oppose Enbridge’s oil tanker-pipeline proposal, which is now awaiting a decision from Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Federally, all party leaders except Stephen Harper have listened to British Columbians and are on record opposing Enbridge. Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair have all unequivocally said that they would reject Enbridge’s plan.

Stephen Harper’s government, particularly Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, has expressed strong support for the project, going so far as to change the rules for reviewing the project midstream, calling opponents radicals, spying on groups and individuals that are oppose the proposal, and gutting environmental laws that might impede Enbridge.

Provincially, the landscape is more complicated. The Green Party – particularly MLA Andrew Weaver – opposes Enbridge, as does NDP leader Adrian Dix, and BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark campaigned on a platform that included a promise to stand up for B.C. against risky oil tanker projects.

After the election, her government’s official submission to the federal regulatory panel concluded, “[It] cannot support the approval of or a positive recommendation from the (panel) regarding this project as it was presented,” adding “‘trust us isn’t good enough'” in regard to Enbridge’s promises about oil spill response. To backtrack now cutting a deal signing off on the same inadequate project would be a betrayal of HST proportions.

Kinder Morgan’s proposal to bring four times more oil tankers into Port Metro Vancouver and twin their pipeline to Burnaby

Federal party leaders’ positions on Kinder Morgan’s proposal highlight the fact that politicians are followers, not leaders. Public opposition to Kinder Morgan is less developed than Enbridge – not because its a better project or people are less passionate, but simply because opponents have had fewer years to come together on the issue.

Elizabeth May of the Green Party is the only federal leader to unequivocally reject American energy giant Kinder Morgan’s proposal to triple the volume of oil flowing to Burnaby.

Although NDP MPs such as Kennedy Stewart have been vocal opponents of Kinder Morgan, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has demonstrated more openness to the project. In December Vancouver Sun reporter Peter O’Neil reported that, “Mulcair said he’s not going to repeat (B.C. NDP leader Adrian) Dix’s error by ruling out support for the Kinder Morgan project in advance of its assessment by the National Energy Board, which received the company’s application last week. He said the NDP recognizes the importance of getting Canadian oil and gas to foreign markets.”

A similar split is happening within the Grits. Sources close to Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray say she is poised to announce her opposition to Kinder Morgan. Murray was the runner up in last year’s Liberal leadership race and is chair of the BC Liberal caucus. If she announces her opposition that would seemingly put her at odds with party leader Justin Trudeau who has indicated preliminary support for Kinder Morgan.

In a recent interview, Trudeau said he was “… very interested in the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline that is making its way through. I certainly hope that we’re going to be able to get that pipeline approved. And I hope that Kinder Morgan learns from Enbridge’s experience of short-cutting or going too light on community buy-in.” Granted, this is conditional support that may change as the anti-Kinder Morgan parade gets bigger, more diverse and more visible. But his initial response will be problematic if he plans to increase the number of Liberal seats in B.C.

In fact, Trudeau’s decision to open up all nominations for Liberal candidates in the lead up to the next federal election may provide an opportunity to change his mind. If we’re organized enough we could ensure only anti-oil tanker candidates succeed in getting Liberal nominations. Trudeau opened the door to this in his remarks in the same interview, saying, “Ultimately governments grant permits, but only communities grant permission.”

The Harper government has been more covert in supporting Kinder Morgan, perhaps heading off criticism that their aggressive support of Enbridge backfired on them. Nonetheless, their desire to fast-track all pipelines like Kinder Morgan that would allow bitumen to be exported to China is clear. Albeit less overt in their rhetoric, Harper’s government still radically gutted the review process to exclude many Canadians with concerns about the proposal.

Here in B.C., NDP leader Adrian Dix and Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver both oppose Kinder Morgan, although ongoing NDP opposition is not a sure thing given the upcoming leadership race. Two of the rumoured front-running candidates to succeed Dix – Mike Farnworth and John Horgan – have publicly criticized Dix’s decision to come out against Kinder Morgan during the election campaign.

While Farnworth has indicated he is inclined to wait for the outcome of the review panel, Horgan has hypothesized in interviews that perhaps a rerouted pipeline and tanker facility at Fraser Surrey Docks or Delta Port may be acceptable. The BC NDP’s position on Kinder Morgan promises to be one of the defining issues of the leadership race.

Building the parade

What’s clear from the review above is that British Columbians concerned about the expansion of oil tankers in our waters can’t sit idly by a count on our political leaders or their parties to do the right thing. We need to build a big parade – perhaps the biggest, baddest, most diverse, most geographically decentralized parade in the history of the province.

If we get organized and develop the capacity to influence votes in key places, politicians of all parties – including the federal conservatives – will have to pay attention and respond.

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