British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is warning that the environmental risks associated with a plan to sell Canadian oil to Asia through the Northern Gateway pipeline outweigh the economic benefits, leaving her at odds with the federal and Alberta governments.
Ms. Clark conveyed her concerns about the project during a series of high-level meetings, beginning with a telephone call to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday. She met face-to-face the same day with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall in Saskatoon and Alberta Premier Alison Redford in Edmonton.
Ms. Clark gave them a heads-up on changes her government is seeking, before Canada's 13 provincial and territorial leaders meet this week in Halifax, where the pipeline project will be on the agenda, her press secretary, Michael Morton, told The Globe and Mail.
Until now, Ms. Clark has not taken a stand on the project.
The proposed $5.5-billion pipeline plays a key role in Mr. Harper's ambition to feed Canadian resources to customers in Asia. Mr. Harper has said it is vital for Canada to reassess its reliance on U.S. markets for energy, and look to Asia. Almost all of Canada's oil exports go to the United States.
Gateway would ship bitumen from Alberta to the northwest coast of British Columbia, linking the oil sands with a port that could theoretically sell oil to customers in Asia.
Julie Vaux, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, confirmed the phone call with Ms. Clark took place but did not comment on what was said.
Opposition to Northern Gateway, particularly among first nations and environmental groups, has hardened following a series of oil spills in Alberta and elsewhere in North America.With Ms. Clark adding her voice to these concerns, she threatens to undermine the momentum her Alberta counterpart is building for a Pan-Canadian energy strategy.
Ms. Redford has held a series of high-level meetings of her own to line up the support of other premiers ahead of this week's meeting in Halifax. She met privately last Wednesday with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty over dinner in Toronto, where they discussed how both their provinces have a vested interest in developing a strategy that pulls together Alberta's land-locked oil sector and other energy sources across Canada.
Other premiers in the Western provinces and Atlantic Canada are also on board, including Nova Scotia's Darrell Dexter, who will host the Halifax meeting.
There is plenty of common ground among the provinces on an energy strategy, Mr. Dexter said in a recent interview. "That includes the fact that we are a very large country, and we have the luxury therefore of having quite a diversified energy portfolio, whether it's in natural gas or in oil."
Mr. Morton said Ms. Clark also broadly supports a national energy strategy, but believes further talks are needed on how it would be executed.
It remains unclear whether her position on the Northern Gateway pipeline is conditional on the outcome of an ongoing National Energy Board review of the project. Two of her cabinet members – Environment Minister Terry Lake and Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister Mary Polak – plan to hold a news conference on Monday morning in Vancouver, where they will outline the government's position on the pipeline.
The ministers are also expected to respond to the pipeline's builder, which announced safety upgrades for the project on Friday. Facing widespread concern about the safety of oil pipelines, Enbridge Inc. promised to spend up to $500-million to reinforce the pipeline. This includes using thicker-walled steel for delicate sections of the planned project, including more than 100 important river crossings, and installation of about 50 additional remotely operable valves that it can shut in the event of an emergency.
"The ability to export Canada's oil and gas resources from the west coast, be it to Asia, Western U.S., or otherwise is vital to the B.C. economy, as well as the national economy," said Travis Davies, the spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "We have world-class energy resources, we are competing on the world stage, and we need access to world markets."
The pipeline is a huge political issue for Ms. Clark's Liberal government, which is struggling to reverse public opinion polls that suggest her party could lose the May, 2013, election to the New Democratic Party. A recent Angus Reid survey had the NDP with 45-per-cent support, compared to 23 per cent for the B.C. Liberals.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix opposes the Northern Gateway project and has assembled a legal team to try to come up with a way to block construction.