Tories, pipeline firms growing apart

Written by Kai Nagata – Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, December 23, 2014

A friend of mine works at TransCanada, the company whose proposed Energy East pipeline would connect oil producers in Alberta with refineries and tanker terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick. This fall, we sat down at a bar in Calgary to catch up.

“It took the federal cabinet a while to warm up to the project,” my friend recounted, “but once they did they wanted to know everything they could do to help.” I wasn’t expecting what I heard next.

“Back off,” TransCanada executives reportedly told key ministers, “especially in Quebec.” The message from the pipeline company was: just let us handle it.

That makes sense, given how unpopular the Conservative brand has become in Quebec. What’s intriguing is that Ottawa appears to have complied.

Indeed, comments earlier this month by Industry Minister James Moore indicate the federal government is applying this new hands-off approach here in B.C. as well.

“We’ve done everything we can,” Moore told the CBC in response to a question about Enbridge and Kinder Morgan’s proposed crude oil pipelines. And now? “It’s up to the firms to deliver on these projects.”

After three years crashing around the proverbial china shop – trampling the environmental laws and regulatory procedures that might have given project reviews some credibility with the public – Ottawa is leaving a broom and dustpan for industry and tiptoeing away.

It’s quite the Christmas present. With global oil prices dropping, not a single new route to tidewater is close to entering service. Now pipeline companies are being told to fend for themselves amid a growing crisis of confidence in the regulatory process itself.

Whether you look at polling from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association or critics like us at the Dogwood Initiative, the trend is clear: only three in 10 British Columbians trust Ottawa’s pipeline approval process to deliver fair decisions in the public interest.

It’s like trying to watch a hockey game when you don’t trust the referees. People are tuning out. And those determined to have their concerns heard are stepping outside of the regulatory arena because they feel their participation there is futile. That means more litigation and, as we saw on Burnaby Mountain, more likelihood of civil disobedience.

Back to Quebec. Even without unwanted help from the Conservatives, TransCanada’s grand seduction hasn’t gone as hoped. Polls now suggest seven in 10 Quebec residents oppose the project. Even more significantly, 87 per cent believe their province should have the power to say yes or no.

Politically speaking, that may be the case already. Legally, there are several avenues by which a provincial government can exert its jurisdiction over such a project.

In November, Quebec’s Liberal environment minister sent a letter to TransCanada informing the company that its Energy East proposal will be subject to an independent public review, led by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement. Quebec’s environmental regulator is seen as highly credible, in part because – unlike the National Energy Board – the BAPE occasionally says no.

In the case of inter-provincial pipelines, that would not be merely a symbolic stance. As the federal government acknowledged in its approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal in June, provinces have authority over dozens of permits – for example, governing freshwater stream crossings – that would be required before construction could begin.

Like Quebec, British Columbia has the power to review pipelines to the West Coast. So far the Clark government has chosen not to exert its jurisdiction, leaving the job to Ottawa instead. How long will that remain a viable position?

Whether you support or oppose these projects, public distrust in regulators is a problem. By letting the Kinder Morgan review grind on in its current state, the B.C. Liberals help advance the perception that politicians simply don’t care what local people think, whether on crude oil transport or other issues.

That’s a dangerous notion to cultivate, as Moore and his colleagues are discovering. It’s likely why, with federal elections on the horizon, the senior cabinet minister for B.C. says he’s done fighting the pipeline companies’ battles for them.

Now is the moment for provinces to step in. As the Conservatives retreat from the pipeline fiasco they themselves created, it’s time for British Columbia to give Kinder Morgan a fair hearing and a clear answer: yes or no.

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