Untangling oil pipeline politics

Tom Fletcher looks at the politics behind the pipeline debate.

VICTORIA – Reaction was swift and scattered after the “framework agreement” on new oil pipelines announced last week by B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

First, here’s what it doesn’t mean.

“B.C. blinked,” according to one Toronto commentator, based on the popular notion that B.C. gave up its claim to a share of Alberta’s resource royalties from heavy oil. Clark never made such a claim, so it would be difficult to give it up.

Her often-repeated condition of a “fair share” of revenues from any new oil pipelines is purposely vague, but after repeated protests from Alberta, Clark clarified as far back as last June that provincial royalties are not on the table. There is no constitutional way to make such a demand, a point Redford has made several times.

NDP leader Adrian Dix and the usual chorus of professional protesters claimed that Clark flip-flopped, opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal before the election and then embracing it once she was re-elected.

This is also inaccurate. Clark’s five conditions were set out before the May election, demanding approval by a federal environmental review, “world-leading” spill prevention and response capability on land and at sea, meeting legal requirements to consult and share benefits with aboriginal communities, and the undefined “fair share” for B.C.

Clark said numerous times during the campaign that the conditions have not been met, and made pessimistic noises about Northern Gateway, but she very carefully did not campaign against it. The B.C. Liberal platform also endorsed a Kitimat-area oil refinery proposed by this newspaper’s owner, and Clark repeatedly referred to that sort of industrial expansion as one of the potential “fair share” components for B.C.

The B.C. Liberal government made its opposition to Northern Gateway “as currently proposed” official on May 31, two weeks after the election, in its final submission to the federal review panel. If Clark had wanted to jump on the anti-pipeline bandwagon for political gain, that move could have been made earlier.

NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said the B.C. government has taken the position that more oil will reach the West Coast, by rail if not by pipeline. I’m not sure if or when that claim was made, but it’s true that rail shipments are already permitted.

Here’s what Redford and Clark agreed on. Redford accepts B.C.’s five conditions, provincial royalties excluded, and Clark endorsed Redford’s proposed “Canadian Energy Strategy,” which B.C. rejected last year.

A draft of the strategy released last summer contains no specifics on how it would facilitate a pipeline project from Alberta to B.C. It talks about developing Canada’s energy reserves and at the same time somehow reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and promises a final version next spring. Oh, and Quebec refuses to participate.

Ottawa has sole jurisdiction over inter-provincial projects such as Northern Gateway and the proposal by Kinder Morgan Canada to expand the 60-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline to Burnaby and refineries in Washington.

If there is to be some extra revenue for B.C. from oil traffic, it could theoretically take the form of a toll on pipelines. Redford pointed out the problem with that idea in her speech to an energy forum in Vancouver last week. She noted that 42 per cent of B.C. natural gas is piped through Alberta to markets. If B.C. can toll Alberta oil, the same could be done with B.C. gas.

None of B.C.’s five conditions has yet been met. Legally, they don’t have to be, except for the one about accommodating aboriginal title.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca.

 

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