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The Politics of Northern Gateway

Last week, Prime Minister Harper said a decision about the contentious Northern Gateway Pipeline would be determined by science, not politics.  Difficult to say if the PM’s statement was a directive or a desire, but at this stage, the more “politics” becomes involved with the project, the less likely it will be built.

Northern Gateway Pipeline Politics: Today

Today, the political arithmetic just doesn’t work; the present lay of the land simply does not lend itself to direct political support of Gateway by any sitting government.


British Columbians express substantial opposition to the project.  According to an Angus Reid Poll earlier this month, almost six-in-ten (59%) B.C. residents are against it, with 35% “completely opposed”.  This compared to 34% who support it, and only 7% who “completely support” the project.


In this context, B.C. Premier Christy Clark recently laid down 5 conditions that would need to be satisfied in order for her government to support Gateway; some might argue these conditions outline the environmental equivalency of “Distinct Society” for British Columbia.


The most contentious of these is that B.C. should receive a “fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits” of the project equivalent to the environmental risk.  While the language of that demand may be vague, its implication is not.  Clark clearly said the Federal government and provincial government of Alberta would need to sit down with B.C. to negotiate a “better deal” in order for Northern Gateway to proceed.


Given the opposition to Gateway, one might be tempted to believe that Clark’s demands would play well in her home province.


Avoid the temptation.  According to the same Angus Reid Poll, Clark’s Liberals are tanking, now down 27 points to Adrian Dix and the NDP.  The next B.C. election is only 10 months away.


The implication being that Clark’s 5 conditions are likely to be the “best case scenario” for Gateway; an NDP government would be apt to simply oppose the project altogether, or seek additional “conditions”.



Prevailing attitudes in B.C. are likely behind the Federal Government’s caution of late.  Grab a calendar and a Commons seating chart and do the math.


A N.E.B joint review panel decision on Gateway is now due before December 31, 2013.  A federal election is due 19 months later.  The Conservatives currently hold 163 of 308 Commons seats; an eight-seat majority.  The Tory’s have 21 MPs from B.C. from a possible 36.  That number increases to 42 in the next General Election.  Mid-term national polls have the NDP surging, particularly in British Columbia.


Make no mistake, a serious mishandling of the Northern Gateway file could not only cost the Tories some seats in B.C. in the next election; it could cost them Government.


On the other side of the Rockies, Clark’s demands for a bigger share of the economic pie prompted Alberta’s Premier to launch a spirited defense of Alberta’s oil royalties.


It’s interesting to note that Premier Clark never actually mentioned the words “oil royalties”.  Nonetheless, Premier Redford’s position on the matter, i.e. happy to chat with B.C. but Alberta is NOT sharing its oil royalties, is a popular position with voters here.  According to an August ThinkHQ Public Affairs poll of 1090 Albertans, two-thirds (68%) approve of Redford’s position (39% strongly) vs. 25% who disapprove and 7% who aren’t sure at this point.


Indeed, if forced to choose, a majority of Albertans (52%) would say no to sharing oil revenues with B.C., even if that means Northern Gateway will likely fail.  Only 29% would opt for sharing some revenue to improve Gateway’s chances, and 19% aren’t sure.


This isn’t to say that Albertans aren’t sympathetic to B.C.’s position on the issue.  In fact, a majority of Albertans feel that Premier Clark’s five conditions are amply fair and reasonable – even 56% say that the economic and fiscal benefits demand is fair game.


For Albertans, the real issue isn’t the demand, but to whom the demand is being made – Albertans largely believe the B.C. Premier is barking up the wrong money tree.  While the Federal and Alberta governments may have an interest in seeing an expansion of Asian energy markets, their names are not on the pipeline application.


The abiding sentiment in Alberta is that if the B.C. Government demands more from a pipeline project, they should be talking to the applicant rather than trying to change the nature of Canadian federalism.


In the final analysis, this project will succeed or fail based on Enbridge’s actions.  In the present political climate, it would be thoroughly unrealistic to expect any government to “put a thumb on the scale”, so to speak.


And Enbridge’s approach needs to be keenly aware of the broader political implications and sensitivities.  In the past, pipeline projects tended to focus solely on the regulator and a few isolated stakeholders such as landowners and aboriginal communities along the route.


Those days are gone.


Major energy infrastructure like pipelines have taken on significantly more profile and public interest than in the past, touching on issues ranging from localized environmental impacts, to national job creation and economic development, to global warming and geo-politics.


In a very real sense, Enbridge must to do the heavy lifting here.  Their task is to not only convince the regulator that the science is right, but also to convince British Columbians that the science is right, and moreover that the environmental “risks” are in balance with the economic benefits.


Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., an Alberta-based government and public relations strategy and public opinion research firm.