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Premiers summit sidetracked by pipeline row

B.C. Premier Christy Clark listens to fellow premiers answer questions during a press conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 27, 2012.

ADAM SCOTTI/REUTERS

Quebec's Jean Charest and Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale have emerged from the premiers' summit as two unlikely allies, warning their Western counterparts not to let the dispute over the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline escalate.

Behind closed doors on Friday morning, it was a reluctant Mr. Charest who acted as a statesman, urging the premiers to stand together instead of standing off.

He did not want to get involved in other premiers' business – but he had seen this script before.

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Mr. Charest, who spoke passionately about how interprovincial spats can play out, reminded his colleagues of the nearly 50-year-old rift between his province and Newfoundland over the Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric project.

Ms. Dunderdale echoed his sentiments, according to sources, as the premiers discussed a pan-Canadian energy strategy, which was fraught with tension over the war of words between British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

There was no shouting or yelling, sources said; the premiers spoke calmly.

Listening to it all was Ms. Clark, who had already decided to take a very public stand. She walked out of the meeting and held an impromptu press conference to say she will not sign on to a national energy strategy if her conditions are not met for the proposed $6-billion Northern Gateway pipeline.

Some premiers in the room had been warned by their officials, who had been gathering intelligence in the corridors the night before, that Ms. Clark would follow a script. They were told she would not "pull a Danny" as one official said, describing the way in which former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams stormed out of a federal-provincial meeting in 2004.

But Ms. Clark's gambit, while raising attention to her argument, may have also left B.C. on the sidelines as the premiers vowed to forge ahead on the strategy. And Ms. Clark's main demand – that Alberta and the federal government must sit down and negotiate with British Columbia for its fair share – came under attack from Ms. Redford.

Ms. Redford has interpreted Ms. Clark's demands to be one of wanting a share of Alberta's royalties. And that, she said, is not negotiable.

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"I'm not at all questioning whether or not Premier Clark thinks British Columbia should get a greater economic benefit," said Ms. Redford, who had been working hard in advance of the premiers' gathering to get support for a national energy strategy. "My view is that if British Columbia thinks it should get a greater economic benefit, then it has fiscal levers to allow it to get those benefits."

Ms. Redford noted, too, that the pipeline, proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge, is a commercial venture. And she suggested Ms. Clark should negotiate with the company about benefits.

But Ms. Clark's focus seems to be singularly on the Alberta and federal governments. At the summit's wrap-up news conference, she dodged questions on Ms. Redford's suggestion that she look elsewhere for her fair share, saying that governments are "central to this discussion."

In an opinion piece for The Globe Saturday, Ms. Clark said B.C. will submit a notice of its intention to cross-examine Enbridge officials during the National Energy Board's joint review panel, which is already under way.

Some premiers felt that Ms. Clark framed her concerns in a positive way. And, knowing that Ms. Clark is "in tough" in her province with the NDP leading in the polls in advance of an election next year, they did not want to freeze her out. A senior source said Ms. Clark had some "constructive" support in the room – with Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, PEI's Robert Ghiz and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty.

In B.C., those who have long opposed the Enbridge pipeline project were skeptical of Ms. Clark's abrupt adoption of a confrontational stance, but analysts said it was good politics for a premier mired near the bottom of popularity polls.

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"Alison Redford might be right about royalty revenues, but politically, Clark's stand is just brilliant," said Royce Koop, formerly with Simon Fraser University's school of public policy, who continues to write about B.C. politics.

"These are probably the best political smarts she's exhibited since she became Premier," said Prof. Koop, now an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, who staked out a position early on against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, gave Ms. Clark no credit for taking on Alberta over the pipeline.

He noted she has not said no to the pipeline, nor the prospect of oil supertankers plying B.C. coastal waters.

"She's in favour, if we get … a fistful of dollars," Mr. Dix said. "All she's doing is trying to get into the debate and win some headlines."

With a report from Rod Mickleburgh in Vancouver

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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