Harper's pipeline dilemma: can't reject, can't ram through

Figuring out what's likely to unfold for Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project felt easier before evidence began trickling out that not all conservatives agree on how to proceed.

Political debate around Northern Gateway shows less clarity, more complexity

Figuring out what's likely to unfold with the Northern Gateway pipeline project felt somewhat easier before evidence began trickling out that not all conservatives agree on how to proceed.

Harper's senior minister for B.C., Heritage Minister James Moore, told a private radio interview in Vancouver on Aug. 1 that there were widespread doubts about Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When the Harper government's senior minister for B.C. popped up on private radio sticking up for B.C.'s right not to be treated like a "doormat" by Enbridge, ears perked up at the prospect of serious cabinet dissent.

This was, after all, a project that had been assumed to be a done deal.

Federal cabinet ministers had gone so far as to attack "foreign-funded radicals" for "hijacking" the environmental review process. Last spring's budget bill smoothed the way for streamlined regulatory approval. From Harper on down, at home and abroad, everyone seemed to agree on its importance to the international trade strategy of diversifying markets for the oil we were selling all-too-cheaply at the moment, capitalizing on opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

And yet, off went Moore, denying to his Vancouver listeners that it was his government's intention to ram the project through.

Was he putting on the jersey of the home team, mindful of public opinion polls and the federal Conservative government's own political realities down the road in a province where Tom Mulcair's NDP has room to grow?

Or was it the first breeze signalling a change in prevailing winds along Gateway's route to regulatory approval?

Provincial New Democrats are trending upwards towards B.C.'s provincial election. Mulcair is poised to draft off that momentum in the coming months. His messaging on resource development appears designed to appeal to doubters.

In the other corner, Conservative politics in B.C. these days is, in a word, complicated. The emergence of a provincial Conservative party led by a former member of Harper's caucus means that Premier Christy Clark's Liberals are no longer the default ally of federal Conservatives.

But that doesn't mean that she's been completely abandoned by Harper. Things are, perhaps, just a bit less cozy than they used to be.

B.C.'s conditional support divisive

A few days before she hosted the premiers meeting last January, Clark's office released a photo of a friendly private meeting between the premier and the prime minister at a local hockey rink, watching her son play. The intended message: she's got his ear.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Christy Clark look on as Clark's 10-year-old son Hamish plays during a minor league hockey game in Vancouver in January. (Premier's office handout/Jeff Vinnick)

But when Harper was in B.C. again this week, no meeting was on the agenda. They hadn't spoken directly, Harper's office confirmed, since a telephone conversation before the Council of the Federation meetings in Halifax in late July.

Clark's "no pipeline" sound bite in Halifax can't have been unexpected in Ottawa. She'd skipped the western premiers meeting in May, leaving her proxy to hear Alberta Premier Alison Redford's appeal for western unity in favour of her proposed national energy strategy.

Public opinion has wedged Clark into a very tight spot as her date with B.C.'s electorate looms. Her strong stand looking for better accommodation of B.C.'s concerns based on five stated conditions for the province's support may have looked tough, but it's nothing compared to the flat "no" the province's New Democrats are likely to say should they have the opportunity to close the door on the proposal down the road.

And so while other energy-rich premiers like Redford and Newfoundland's Kathy Dunderdale may have found Clark's stand unhelpful to their own national goals, as fellow politicians in that room they'd have understood where she was coming from.

Similarly, Moore's interview offered collegial understanding, if not support for all of Clark's conditions.

Clark didn't get the same treatment from Moore's cabinet colleagues.

John Baird, who once worked with Alison Redford in then-federal leader Jean Charest's office, was quick to condemn, saying Clark had been "deeply disappointing."

"We should all be in the same boat rowing together," Baird said on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. "It's certainly not a welcome addition to federal-provincial relations."

"Unhelpful," agreed Jason Kenney, during the Calgary minister's meeting with a Victoria Times Colonist editorial board the same day. "The notion that there are 10 separate fiefdoms and you have to tollgate everything you move from east to west would massively undermine the whole concept of an economic union and efficient operation of the Canadian economy."

Constitutional rights and 'hypothetical revenues'

Harper himself was pretty cool to the revenue-sharing-for-risk-incurred idea when he finally took questions on the matter last Tuesday. But he seemed not to condemn, but avoid it.

"I am not going to get into an argument or a discussion about how we divide hypothetical revenues," he told reporters in Vancouver.

Prime Minsiter Stephen Harper told reporters in Vancouver his government does not "pick and choose" among resource development projects, and their approval will be based on scientific evaluation, not politics. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Here it may be helpful to note last week's column by former Harper intimate Tom Flanagan in The Globe and Mail

The prime minister's former adviser explained the constitutional powers available to the federal government to ensure that B.C. does not block the pipeline. But Flanagan also pointed out that Harper's instinct in other matters like health care has been to give provinces maximum leeway.

It serves to suggest how uncomfortable it might be for Harper to crack down on fellow hockey parent Clark, particularly ahead of an election he may hope she ultimately wins.

Flanagan wrote that the collapse of Redford's "well-meaning but naive" national energy strategy "shows how weak the provinces are at promoting the national interest."

"Only the federal government can reverse the trend," Flanagan concluded. Possible message: it's Harper's job to deliver national economic benefits, not the premiers.

Three days after that column appeared, Harper reminded his audience in B.C. that new trade opportunities across the Pacific Ocean were in not just the province's, but the federal government's, "vital interest."

B.C.'s 'realpolitik'

Clark's conditions aside, the most lethal aspect of Moore's offensive against Enbridge's conduct was the assault on its safety record and consultation process (or lack thereof.)

"This project will not survive public scrutiny unless Enbridge takes far more seriously their obligation to engage the public and to answer those very legitimate questions about the way in which they’ve operated their business in the very recent past," Moore predicted.

Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel told CBC News on Tuesday that his company was worried about its higher public profile as a result of politically charged pipeline projects. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Enbridge's CEO Patrick Daniel rejected this Tuesday in an interview with CBC News, saying it had been consulting on the project for more than a decade, including some 17,000 meetings with individuals and groups.

Moore's more favourable comments about the track record of competing pipeline player Kinder Morgan's potential expansion led some to wonder if Harper's cabinet was switching horses, despite the prime minister's assertion on Tuesday that his government does not "pick and choose" among resource projects.

A Vancouver Sun opinion piece by the former CEO of natural gas giant Encana, Gwyn Morgan, provides further useful insight as one tries to peer inside the debate around Harper's cabinet table.

Morgan was once the Harper government's pick to head its public appointments commission, before his close ties to the Conservative Party and controversial comments about refugees made the appointment of this appointer-in-chief unpalatable to the opposition parties in the then-minority government.

Morgan doesn't share Moore's apparent preference for Kinder Morgan and its Vancouver-based expansion plans.

In his editorial, he points out that the tanker risks for Gateway are "clearly lower" and that the public discourse is missing the fact that Gateway is actually the "lowest risk alternative" for shipping oilsands bitumen to the critical new markets.

Morgan's most fascinating point is an attack on the "Calgary office towers" who, unlike Enbridge's "modest regulated return," stand to gain "enormous upside" if the pipeline proceeds. He criticizes the oil patch for doing "little or nothing" to help Enbridge in the public opinion storm, and sides with Clark on how little B.C. stands to gain, pointing out how the idea of building a refinery in Canada to create potential long-term jobs has been "shunned" by petroleum producers.

Unlike the natural gas that's also set for export out of Kitimat, B.C.'s new marine terminal, there are bitumen spill risks with the Gateway project. B.C. will see economic benefits when LNG starts shipping from its shores in ways it cannot reap rewards from Gateway as things stand.

Clark's stance, Morgan writes, was "politically inevitable," and his old friends in Alberta have shown a "complete failure … to understand the realpolitik of B.C."

Was Moore's interview a sign that he gets that "realpolitik" in his home province?

Softening past attacks

Prior to recent weeks, the most enthusiastic cabinet cheerleaders for pipeline projects were (perhaps understandably) Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and (less understandably, given the nature of the advocacy that might be expected from his portfolio) Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Oliver called oilsands and pipeline opponents "radical groups" who were out to "hijack" the regulatory system and "block this opportunity to diversify our trade." Their funding, he said, came from "foreign special interest groups."

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has the lead on the Harper government's responsible resource development file, aiming to streamline regulatory approvals and boost economic growth. (Handout/Natural Resources Canada)

Kent saw his "foreign radicals" line and raised it with money laundering accusations, telling host Evan Solomon on CBC Radio's The House that these charitable agencies "launder offshore foreign funds for inappropriate use against Canadian interest."

Moore's insistence last week that Gateway was not being rammed through stood in sharp relief with the aggressive determination to proceed implicit in these attacks on oilsands opponents.

Kent still appeared warm to the aspirations of the oilsands sector as he released Environment Canada's emissions trends report Wednesday, lauding the progress of the oil and gas sector in reducing its carbon emissions ahead of anticipated federal regulations next year.

Oliver did, however, confront the pipeline question more head on in Saskatoon Thursday. And while initial print statements from his office had declined to concur with Moore, in person the minister did, in fact, have something negative to say.

"There have been some recent spills and I've said, we're, as a government, not happy with that," Oliver told Solomon on Power & Politics.

But his assessment was still less harsh than Moore's, and unlike the B.C. minister, he didn't leave the overall impression that "widespread doubts" could be weighing heavily on the government's mind. 

"I'm not defending their action, but I think the record was a pretty good one, and you know they want to make sure that it's in the light of these spills, that it's better," Oliver said, applauding the industry's efforts towards improvement.

On Thursday in Ottawa, the president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association reminded reporters that former Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent lost the 1957 election to Conservative John Diefenbaker in the aftermath of a great pipeline debate (building the TransCanada pipeline to carry Alberta's natural gas to Ontario and Quebec.)

The political debate over the Gateway pipeline looks set to colour the next provincial election in B.C. Could it spill over into the next federal election campaign too? 

The political haze of last three weeks has featured plenty of shades of grey.