The federal Liberals want to ban oil supertankers from British Columbia's northwestern coast, a promise that would halt the building of a proposed $5.5-billion oil sands pipeline from Alberta through northern B.C.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's announcement that a future Liberal government would legislate a ban on the tankers pits his party against one of Canada's largest companies, Enbridge Inc.
Last month, the Calgary oil pipeline firm formally applied to the National Energy Board to build the pipeline. The Northern Gateway would move 525,000 barrels a day from the oil sands to Kitimat for export to Asia, but the plan to ban tanker traffic around Haida Gwaii would quash the plan.
"We know that those are dangerous waters. We all know what oil does when oil spills," Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray said in an interview. "We believe there's no guarantee there won't be a spill."
Mr. Ignatieff wasn't available for an interview, an aide said after the Liberal leader announced the new policy at an event on Monday in Victoria. In a statement, the Liberal leader declared: "The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a grim reminder that we must always be vigilant."
Enbridge said its Gateway pipeline would bring much-needed jobs and investment to northern British Columbia and be built and operated to stringent environmental and safety standards. But because the pipeline proposal is before a quasi-judicial hearing at the National Energy Board, Enbridge didn't speak specifically about the Liberals' talk of a tanker ban.
"It wouldn't be appropriate to speculate on these types of political policy statements," Enbridge spokesman Alan Roth said.
The oil pipeline is opposed by 28 first nations along the route, according to environmental group Dogwood Initiative, and a poll conducted for Dogwood in May found that 80 per cent of 500 people surveyed supported a ban on tanker traffic on the B.C. coast.
Enbridge is lobbying Canadians to support Northern Gateway, placing full-page ads in newspapers that promote a predicted $81-billion in direct and indirect government revenues over 30 years.
Ms. Murray indicated the Liberals are against large supertankers and not the many other ships that sail B.C. waters. The Liberals don't oppose the smaller tankers carrying a light oil called condensate that already ply the choppy waters of Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound around Haida Gwaii.
The Liberals also did not take a stand on the oil tankers that sail past downtown Vancouver and Stanley Park taking crude from a facility in Burnaby, a terminus of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta.
Two New Democrat MPs in the Lower Mainland - Fin Donnelly of New Westminster-Coquitlam and Don Davies of Vancouver-Kingsway - already have private members bills before Parliament to legislate a tanker ban in the same area around Haida Gwaii.
Growing support in Parliament buoyed Dogwood Initiative, which has worked for years against Gateway. A spokesman for the group said that if the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois support the NDP bills, a ban could be legislated quickly.
"We're on the road to victory," said Eric Swanson of Dogwood. "We could have a legislated tanker ban before the next election."
The Liberals said they would formalize a tanker moratorium enacted in 1972. Enbridge disputes this moratorium, citing a 2005 letter by then Liberal transport minister Jean Lapierre to Liberal David Anderson. The letter noted a ban on tanker traffic from Alaska to the southern United States, but added that tankers originating in ports such as Kitimat weren't banned.
Separate from the tanker question, a moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on B.C.'s offshore remains. The provincial B.C. Liberal government tried early last decade to get Ottawa to lift the drilling ban, but gave up in 2005 and recently reaffirmed there are no plans to open up the coast to drilling.