British Columbia·Analysis

The political stakes in the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline decision

Given the heightening concerns on several fronts, there will be a political price to pay no matter what Ottawa's decision is in the coming days about the Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the B.C. coast, Stephen Smart writes.

Northern Gateway pipeline: 1,200 km, 209 conditions, one monumental political headache

A group of protesters gathers outside the Northern Gateway hearings in Prince Rupert in December 2012. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press)

After years of debate and political consternation, the future of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline comes down to this: a go/no-go decision from the federal cabinet, which has to be made sometime over the next seven days.

Ottawa's Joint Review Panel looked into the potential environmental impacts of the nearly 1,200-kilometre pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to a shipping terminal in Kitimat, B.C., and gave its stamp of approval in December.

The  government is now  reviewing the National Energy Board's 209 recommendations for Enbridge. If it accepts them and approves the project those conditions must be met  before the pipeline can be operational.

But the reality is that, on top of the obvious environmental, economic and First Nations impacts, this proposal carries a tanker load of political implications as well.

For the Stephen Harper government, the timing of this decision almost couldn't be worse.

2015 is a federal election year, which means that whatever Ottawa decides, Northern Gateway will be fresh in the minds of voters when the next trip to the polls rolls around.

If they approve the pipeline, Harper's Conservatives can bet on taking a hit at the ballot box in B.C. In fact, they can probably count on losing at least some of their 21 B.C. MPs because of it, particularly in metro Vancouver where environmental concerns are top of mind for many voters.

B.C. vs. Alberta

There is not a lot of grey area in this province when it comes to Northern Gateway. A recent Nanos poll found 67 per cent of British Columbians either want the project rejected or delayed for further review.

Only 29 per cent of the 500 B.C. residents who took part in the telephone survey would like to see it approved.

Even in Kitimat, the proposed terminus for the tankers to carry the oil to Asia, there is a groundswell of opposition.

Marie Browning casts her ballot during Kitimat, B.C.'s plebiscite on the Northern Gateway pipeline project, Saturday, April 12, 2014. (Robin Rowland / Canadian Press)

A plebiscite there in April saw 58 per cent of residents vote against Enbridge, prompting the town's mayor and council to officially oppose the project.

This from the community that probably has the most to gain in terms of jobs and economic benefits.

At the same time, contrast B.C.'s take on this pipeline with the likely political fallout in Alberta if Ottawa doesn't give Enbridge the green light.

Alberta oil producers are getting increasingly desperate to get their product to market, and the slow pace of U.S. approval for the Keystone XL pipeline south to the Gulf of Texas is further clogging up the system.

Conservative MPs from Alberta are also likely concerned about political repercussions if the PM doesn't approve Enbridge.

After so much build up, a no-go may well push frustrated voters toward Justin Trudeau's Liberals or cause them simply to stay home on voting day.

Either way, it's not a scenario the Conservatives want to deal with in their traditional stronghold, especially when they want to bill themselves as the party of economic growth and prosperity.

Christy's dilemma

Here in B.C., the political implications of Northern Gateway are just as significant for the provincial government.

So far, Christy Clark's governing Liberals have managed to stay above the fray by putting forward a series of high-sounding and somewhat vague conditions for its support.

These five conditions, which include the need for B.C. to get a "fair share" of the benefits, as well as a requirement for "world class" oil spill response, will come into sharper focus if Ottawa says yes to Enbridge.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has not been particularly gung-ho on Northern Gateway, preferring to concentrate on exporting the province's liquiefied natural gas instead. (Canadian Press)

If that happens, B.C.'s political leaders will be thrust into the centre of the debate and forced to either get on board with Ottawa's decision — and risk voter anger themselves — or prepare for a huge fight with both the feds, and likely Alberta.

It is a fight they would be waging without much effective ammunition as the vast majority of regulatory power rests with Ottawa.

Still, for both levels of government, there could be a political escape hatch waiting in the wings — courtesy of First Nations.

When it comes to opposition to Enbridge, there is no group as well positioned to prevent the pipeline from going ahead as the 45 First Nations along the proposed route.

Enbridge claims to have signed agreements with a handful of these affected First Nations communities, but aboriginal leaders insist those are mostly in Alberta, and only represent a small minority of the total numbers.

Others like the Gitga'at First Nation, who live along B.C.'s North Coast, where oil laden tankers would ply the waters, have already filed court action to keep Enbridge from going ahead.

Although First Nations don't have an official veto on resource projects, the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the need for "meaningful consultation" before land use decisions of this magnitude can be made. Especially when it comes to areas that are subject to unresolved land claims like those along the pipeline route.

Given that almost everyone involved in this project agrees Enbridge has done an exceptionally poor job of First Nations consultations to date, aboriginal opposition poses the biggest obstacle to the pipeline proceeding.

At the same time, that opposition might also allow Ottawa to finesse a go decision in that the government would essentially be acknowledging that approval would be accompanied by years of First Nations' court challenges and further consultation before shovels hit the ground.  

Handled right, that might just be enough to put off the political reckoning until after the election.

The proposed tanker route that would leave Kitimat, B.C. at the inland edge of a long channel. (Canadian Press)


Stephen Smart

B.C. Politics

Stephen Smart is the legislative bureau chief in British Columbia for CBC News.