Premier Christy Clark will pop by Government House on Tuesday morning to formally set the election campaign in play. By the afternoon, the campaign buses will be rolling, beginning a four-week scramble for votes.
Back at the legislature, the bureaucrats will be stacking up a tower of briefing documents for whichever party leader gets to pick up the keys to the premier's office after May 14.
The incoming premier may detect a ticking sound in that pile of documents, coming from the folders on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. It's an issue that will demand immediate attention. On any number of issues, the incoming government will find itself fettered by the outgoing one. But on this topic, the final decision on what the province will actually say – thumbs up, thumbs down, or silence – has been temporarily shelved while the campaign runs its course.
That's an appropriate call. However, the National Energy Board hearings on the project are winding down. The schedule requires that the B.C. government finally take a position on the $6-billion pipeline proposal before the B.C. election results have even been confirmed on June 5. On May 24, the province is scheduled to deliver its final arguments at the NEB hearing on the Enbridge project. If there is a change in government, there won't even be a new B.C. cabinet in place at that point, only a premier-elect.
The bureaucracy has been instructed to produce a range of options for the incoming government and to act on the wishes of that new administration. The options are expected to include: Support the project with conditions, reject the project, or simply opt out and make no recommendation to the NEB.
Should the Liberals hang on to power, it's likely the B.C. legal team will be instructed to say "no" to the pipeline. Even with the draft conditions on Northern Gateway released last week by the NEB, the five conditions for B.C. government approval that were laid out by Ms. Clark have not yet been met. Ms. Clark, at a party fundraiser last week, signalled she will take the pipeline issue to voters as she laid out her campaign priorities in a half-hour speech.
"We have set five conditions for the movement of heavy oil through our province and I will not bend," she said. In the same speech, she disparaged Alberta oil as dirty – not an encouraging sign for Enbridge. She said B.C.'s natural-gas reserves hold as much energy as Alberta's oil sands, but "the difference, though, is this: It's clean. A clean fuel, to wean Asia off dirtier sources of energy."
The Liberals and the NDP would like to say their positions are vastly different, but they both appear to be heading in the same direction. If the NDP wins, it will be "no" either by word or by deed. Environment critic Rob Fleming says the NEB hearing might be a nice venue for outlining his party's opposition to the project, but the main focus of an NDP government would be to set up a B.C. environmental review. And they can: In 2010, the Liberal government signed an agreement with Ottawa giving away responsibility for examining Northern Gateway and several other energy projects. But that agreement includes an escape clause allowing B.C. to give 30 days' notice to terminate the agreement. But the NDP still oppose the project. "The Liberals have surrendered the right to really say 'no,' " Mr. Fleming said. "If B.C. is headed to disagree with Ottawa, it needs to have its own legal process."
Still, it makes for an oddly undefined debate about the top environmental issue on voters' minds. Eric Swanson is running a parallel No Tankers campaign for the Dogwood Initiative. He says the NDP have been more clear and consistent in their opposition to Northern Gateway than the Liberals. But, given the mood among voters in B.C., it doesn't matter which method the next premier takes to get to 'no.' "If the Prime Minister tries to force an unwanted project on B.C., he is going to lose pretty big out here. That's the main power the next premier has."