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Enbridge fiasco becoming political touchstone

If they haven't already, executives at Enbridge may want to commence action on Plan B – if there is one.

The company's dreams of building a pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the Pacific are fading fast. Public support for the project in British Columbia is diminishing by the day. And the company can't find many who want to champion its cause outside of Alberta.

This week was particularly rough for the Enbridge proposal. A U.S. regulator tore a strip off the company over its handling of a 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River. National Transportation Safety Board chair Debbie Hersman conjured images of the Keystone Kops – manna for opponents of the Northern Gateway.

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It certainly provided more ammunition for B.C. New Democratic Party Leader, Adrian Dix, who is firmly opposed to the Northern Gateway project. If the Kalamazoo River debacle showed how Enbridge responded to oil spills, why would any government in its right mind allow it to build a pipeline through some of the most pristine wilderness in the world? And then allow supertankers to cart the stuff down one of the most ecologically sacred coast lines on the planet?

Not likely to happen. Especially given that, barring some kind of political miracle, Mr. Dix's New Democrats will likely form government in the province next spring. B.C. Premier Christy Clark's Liberals are in a hole with voters so dark and cavernous it's impossible to see any way out.

The advice Ms. Clark has received on the Northern Gateway file seems, in retrospect, to have been seriously flawed. The Premier has refused to take a position on the project, saying she wants to see what the environmental review process comes up with first. This week she did join the chorus of voices condemning Enbridge for the way it dealt with the Kalamazoo incident.

While her decision not to rush to judgment on the Gateway initiative may seem like a thoughtful and commendable stance, it has made her look indecisive up against Mr. Dix's firm resistance to the proposal. It has also allowed her opponent to galvanize public opinion around his point of view.

The last poll on the issue in April showed that a majority of British Columbians now oppose Northern Gateway, which was a switch from earlier surveys that indicated views were divided. Now opponents of the project seem to have a nice head of steam behind them.

At this point, it's difficult to see a path to victory for Enbridge.

While technically the final decision is Ottawa's, B.C. could throw up enough regulatory roadblocks in front of the Calgary-based company to make the venture pointless even if it was given the green light. And it's also difficult to imagine the company pressing ahead with its plans if the B.C. government, and the public, were squarely against them. The protests would be enormous and not the kind of publicity the company wants.

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Mr. Dix indicated to me Friday that he'd oppose an alternative routing through Prince Rupert, one that would not involve tankers going down the B.C. coast. He said that option would not change the fundamental risks inherent in the project overall.

One would think the NDP Leader's anti-pipeline position would provide a political opening for Premier Clark.

There remains an economic case to be made for the project; one that could become stronger and more convincing depending on the success of negotiations with Alberta over such things as royalties. If the pipeline could put billions in provincial coffers – money that could be used for health care and education and raises for public servants like teachers and nurses who haven't seen a pay hike in awhile – that might help change the conversation.

The project would create jobs, as well. Ms. Clark has made jobs the centrepiece of her policy platform, such as it is. From that point of view, Northern Gateway fits into that theme nicely.

Moving off her position is not without risks, however.

It would make her look like a flip-flopper. The damage that would cause would depend, largely, on how convincing she was in making her case for the switch. There's also the threat that public opinion has already hardened in opposition to the project, which would put her firmly on the wrong side of it. Then again, Ms. Clark's Liberals are so low in the polls that hazard is almost a moot point.

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If nothing else, it would make Ms. Clark look resolute and on the side of the B.C. worker. Jobs and the economy may be the only card she has left to play in the lead-up to next spring's election – as tattered and dog-eared as it may be.

But at least it's something. Right now, Ms. Clark's government looks completely lost on the issue.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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