Is Harper setting up BC govt to reject Northern Gateway

Is Harper setting up BC govt to reject Northern Gateway?

Is Harper setting up BC govt to reject Northern Gateway
Christy Clark photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

By Geoff Salomons

To many, the recent decision by the Harper Government to approve the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline – a project it has so emphatically been pushing – is not surprising at all. What was surprising was the relative lack of fanfare in which the announcement was released. As Jennifer Ditchburn noted, there was no MP, let alone the minister responsible, to make the announcement: just a simple press release four paragraphs long entitled “Government of Canada Accepts Recommendation to Impose 209 Conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal”.

In this release, the government highlighted the role of the (emphasized) independent panel in making the recommendation. It noted that this is another step in a long, thorough process. It urged Enbridge now to demonstrate how it will meet the 209 conditions the independent panel put forth, as well as the additional work Enbridge has to do to “fulfill the public commitment it has made to engage with Aboriginal groups and local communities along the route” (ignore for a moment the fact that the “duty to consult” is 1) the Crown’s responsibility, not Enbridge’s; or 2) one would assume extends to Coastal First Nations that are adamantly opposed to the pipeline due to spill potential, and isn’t restricted to First Nations living along the pipeline Right-of-Way). Finally, it stated:

[quote]It [Enbridge] will also have to apply for regulatory permits and authorizations from federal and provincial governments.[/quote]

Enbridge faces big hurdles with First Nations

All of this seems all well and good. Shortly thereafter, the First Nation groups stood up to voice their continued opposition and, to be clear, the “duty to consult” provision will likely be the most difficult hurdle for Enbridge to overcome – especially in light of the Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot’in decision, which closely followed the Enbridge announcement.

What was more intriguing for me was the response from BC Environment Minister Mary Polak. She noted that this was just the first of BC’s five previously stated conditions. She then went on to note that “the Federal government also highlights the fact that there are important permitting decisions that are properly the jurisdiction of the provinces.” Interesting.

Harper couldn’t reject Enbridge

What is interesting is that in no plausible scenario could Stephen Harper reject the Northern Gateway pipeline, given this government’s behaviour in backing the oil industry generally speaking, doing its best to discredit environmental opposition and going so far as to label such opposition “radicals” with an ideological agenda, and criticizing the Obama administration for delaying its decision on Keystone XL.

Once the Joint Review Panel gave its approval – subject to its conditions – the door was wide open. The problem is the political opposition, not only within the “radical” environmental circles, but broadly speaking in British Columbia is increasing. 300 scholars signed a letter arguing that the Joint Review Panel was fundamentally flawed, particularly because it included upstream oil sands development as a benefit, while excluding the environmental and climactic costs associated with such development.


Numerous polls have come out showing increasing opposition to the project (to be fair, the polls do vary, depending on whether pro-pipeline or anti-pipeline framing is given to the questions – yet even the most pipeline-friendly polling questions show 50% opposition). If Harper rejects the project based on political calculations, it looks bad, particularly to his base in Alberta. If he approves the project, he potentially loses BC in the 2015 election, which doesn’t look bad, it is bad.

The question is whether the Northern Gateway project has become such a political landmine that Harper has essentially written it off (knowing the likely outcome of First Nation challenges in court) and is searching for a way to reject the project, without him rejecting the project.

Where does BC govt stand?

Enter British Columbia. It is at this point that the comments made by BC Environment Minister Polak seem much more significant. Opposition to Northern Gateway is significant. Christy Clark has issued five conditions which must be achieved in order for her to approve the project. One of them – “Ensuring British Columbia receives its fair share” – seems almost impossible, given the structure of federal equalization payments.

In either case, it is a way for Premier Clark to publicly look like she is saying “help me find a way to yes” when she knows, politically, that she’ll have to reject it anyway. If public opinion in BC is truly in opposition to the extent that it seems, and the Federal Government’s press release makes me think that it is, then rejecting the pipeline is a political win for Premier Clark.

In addition, it would take the Northern Gateway off Stephen Harper’s agenda and let him focus his attention on other, less politically volatile pipeline proposals. The emphasis of the provincial role in issuing permits by the federal government, and shortly thereafter re-emphasized by Minister Polak could very well be coincidental. Unless this is exactly what Stephen Harper wants.

Geoff Salomons is a University of Alberta Political Science PhD student studying environmental policy, democratic theory and long-term policy problems.


7 thoughts on “Is Harper setting up BC govt to reject Northern Gateway?

  1. This issue is not, unfortunately, decided.

    We focus on Northern Gateway. But the real problem is that Alberta, like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, is a petro state that under a sclerotic and unimaginative government that has held power since the 1930’s has not diversified its economy since the discovery of Leduc in 1949. There is no federal or Albertan environmental regulation of the tar sands. Alberta plans to increase production from the tar ands to five million barrels a day by 2030. We know what Canada is internationally considered to be a “rogue climate” state.

    But I have difficulty with Harper’s weak approval of Northern Gateway. The fiasco of Nadon shows that our evangelical prime minister does not get very good legal advice. Perhaps his god is not longer telling him what to do?

    But Harper has the power to have Parliament declare Northern Gateway “to be for the general advantage of Canada or for the advantage of two of more provinces” under the Constitution Act, 1867, paragraph 82(10)(c). Perhaps he is saving such a move for later in the game?

    Such a declaration would make Chrisite Clark, B.C.’s version of Sarah Palin, powerless. Provincial law cannot affect a work for the advantage of Canada. Perhaps Harper is waiting to see what Victoria does. If Victoria does not approve Northern Gateway and, Harper is in power at the time, he can have Parliament make a paragraph 82(10)(c) declaration. Albertans will be overjoyed that they can by that new, 52” TV and have two SUV’s in the garage. It will help them ignore the damage they are doing to people that are being poisoned by the tar sands and to the environment.

    Such a declaration or an approval by Victoria would offend the augmentation of rights under the Tsilhqot’in Nation decision and result in more litigation. The case would obviously end up in the SCC where the SCC would have to decide if Northern Gateway satisfies the three tests stated in the Tsilhqot’in Nation decision. The SCC has left itself wiggle room in the Tsilhqot’in Nation decision where it might permit Northern Gateway to proceed.

    Ottawa, Alberta and Enbridge will not rest in their efforts to build Northern Gateway. I expect Victoria to be bought off. If the B.C. First Nations fail to stop this travesty in court, all we will be left with is massive, peaceful civil disobedience.

  2. Given that this issue is pretty much decided, I’m wondering why:

    1) This wasn’t thought through from the beginning. Knowing BC to be a stronghold for environmental stewardship, Harper should have not been so naive and known that it would be impossible to convince the province that tankers off the shore in an area well known for treacherous seas and countless small islands and inlets was anything but a terrible idea.

    2) Thanks to the Supreme Court, First Nations now are a much bigger player in these issues. Why not take advantage of that to ask them what kind of lives they want to live? Engage with more than proposals from multinational corporations whose first and only goal is profit. Find out how they want to use their land. Should there be First Nations cities? What kind of an existence, in the 21st century, does the aboriginal population of Canada want for themselves, apart from it _not_ being what the white man wants.

    3) Now that it’s pretty much settled (no pipeline unless either commits political suicide), why aren’t we turning the page and seeing what we _should_ be doing? How about an initiative to harness some of those other energy sources in this huge country? What about windmills on the prairies, solar cells in the Okanagan, tidal generators near the most powerful tidal area in the world, The Bay of Fundy? Sludgy black tar is not the only thing found in Canada, and burning fossil fuels is, well, so 20th century. Unless we want even more floods in Calgary, we should be following the sensible idea that when your ship is sinking, you don’t want to be bailing more water _into_ the canoe,

    We’re wasting time, both in terms of learning how to ‘make a living’ in this world, and solving the energy and climate crisis. This has been one enormous distraction that in the end, is making no one rich except lawyers.

  3. Christy should meet our one condition no pipeline period. Risk is to great. A 1000 conditions wont prevent a massive spill. Cleanup is nonsense ie impossible.

  4. Build a refinery in Alberta and transport refined product East.Keep even refined product from entering BC. It is to dangerous to our coast. The Enviromental risk is to great and a 1000 conditions wont change this BC people do not want this pipeline even if Christys 5 conditions are met. She should meet the public one condition NO PIPELINE.

  5. It is my opinion that the Northern Gateway pipe line should not proceed. Rather have a pipe line go east to eastern Canada refineries.

    Our BC west coast will be vulnerable to pollution of all sorts. Oil tankers, guided by tug boats navigating the narrow passages to the open sea is a dangerous undertaking at the best of times. More so in weather that will only permit navigation by radar, or during night passages, or foul weather conditions like fog etc. calls for a misjudgment and disaster…


  6. It’s amazing that the BOTH of them seem to see this as something to further their career instead of looking and making a judgement based on the actual facts. Anyone else feel sidetracked from the real issues after reading this article?

    1. Yes Kolt, this article certainly is written from that perspective!
      Who cares that these two fools, Harper and Clark have backed themselves into a corner? Let them stay there!
      Maybe this should send a strong message to all how little thought they devote to the massive damage this industry is willing to wreak on this province.
      It should send chills up our spines that this pipeline and all such projects become plays in Political games.

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