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The Gateway gap: B.C. and oil patch stumble into silence

B.C. Premier Christy Clark scrums with media following her meeting with Alberta Premier Alison Redford to discuss the Northern Gateway pipeline in Calgary Oct. 1, 2012.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

In the midst of her high-profile battle to wrest more money for British Columbia from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, Premier Christy Clark likened herself to the Maytag man. She is sitting by the phone, she said. But no one is calling. Except, it turns out, for the company that wants to build the $6-billion project.

Enbridge Inc. has sought to meet with the B.C. government about Ms. Clarks' five demands, which include garnering greater compensation for the risk of having Alberta oil traverse the western-most province's lands and waters. But Enbridge has faced a problem. The B.C. government, which on Wednesday made clear its willingness to use cabinet powers to block Gateway, has declined its requests for a meeting.

"My understanding is that it's not their desire to meet with us at this point in time. But we remain open to sitting down with the premier, as we would other members of the government – or, frankly, whomever we need to," Enbridge chief executive Al Monaco said Wednesday.

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He suggested that discussions over B.C.'s demands could fit in to a broader slate of consultations the company has engaged in for years now with first nations and residents of Alberta and B.C.

"This would just be an extension of the massive consultation we've been doing on this project," Mr. Monaco said. He added: "We will put all efforts to certainly communicate and discuss the project."

A spokesman for Premier Clark confirmed that Enbridge would be rebuffed if it tried to meet with her or her cabinet ministers while the Gateway environmental review is under way, saying the Maytag man reference was to waiting for other governments to call. "It's government policy that politicians won't meet with them while this is in process," the spokesman said.

Three of the B.C. demands are linked to environmental concerns, including land and marine spills. The fourth is tied to first nations' rights. Ms. Clark maintains that the financial demand is the least important.

The desire to discuss those demands with B.C. is widespread in the energy industry, echoed in comments made Tuesday by Bruce March, the head of Imperial Oil Ltd. That wish, however, has been frustrated by the B.C. government's refusal to directly engage in discussions, raising questions in Alberta about how serious Ms. Clark is in pursuing a solution.

This week, for example, she sought and obtained a personal meeting with Alberta Premier Alison Redford. It lasted just 15 minutes. Both premiers subsequently described it as "frosty" and largely ineffectual.

Ms. Clark then reiterated her reluctance to discuss her demands while speaking to students at the University of Calgary, saying she is not talking to oil companies.

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"And I'll tell you why not: Because we set out five conditions. It is not up to us to negotiate them," she said. She added: "It is not up to me to become the champion for this project. I have some pretty big fish to fry in British Columbia."

Indeed, new threats from Ms. Clark place the project in some jeopardy, the Enbridge chief acknowledged. On Tuesday, the B.C. premier made clear BC Hydro, a Crown corporation, could be used to deny Enbridge the electricity it needs for its pipeline. The B.C. government could also decline to issue some of the 60 permits Enbridge might need, she said.

Energy regulatory lawyers have questioned whether the province actually holds that power, saying B.C. risks a legal confrontation – one it stands to lose – if it attempts to block a federally-regulated project.

A spokesman acknowledged that if "certain conditions are met," BC Hydro has obligations to provide electricity. But since BC Hydro is provincially regulated, the government, he said, "has the tools available to enable outcomes it feels best meet the province's interests – these include the ability to direct BC Hydro to supply, or not to supply, power in specific situations."

But for Enbridge, the threat is real. Asked if the possibility of losing hydro posed a risk to Gateway, Mr. Monaco said: "certainly it would be if that's the position of the B.C. government."

For now, Enbridge is doing the only thing it can, which is to continue seeking approval to build the pipeline.

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"I would rather focus my energy and attention on ensuring we are doing what we can do now to get through the regulatory process," Mr. Monaco said.

With a file from Justine Hunter.

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About the Authors
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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