One of Premier Christy Clark’s first tasks of the new term will be to resume trade talks with Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Several daunting tasks await. Clark must repair relations with Alberta Premier Alison Redford after B.C.’s theatrics over oil pipelines before the election, and prepare for the results of a federal environmental review of the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal in the fall.
Some people were surprised on Friday when the B.C. government released its final written submission to the federal environmental review panel on Northern Gateway. It was widely interpreted as B.C.’s outright rejection of the project, but it’s not as simple as that.
Clark and B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake signalled several times before the election that they were not getting the answers they wanted from Enbridge. But they stuck to the principle that the hearings must be completed.
The NDP repeated for months that the B.C. Liberal government had forfeited its own review and handed jurisdiction over the environmental assessment to Ottawa. In fact, a pipeline that runs across two provinces is by definition a matter of federal jurisdiction. B.C. could have held its own parallel set of hearings, which was the NDP’s stated preference, but in no circumstance does the province have a veto. Both the B.C. Liberal government and Enbridge were careful to leave the door open for further talks.
A closer reading of their comments shows that the key difference at this stage is one of timing.
“The panel must determine if it is appropriate to grant a certificate for the project as currently proposed on the basis of a promise to do more study and planning after the certificate is granted,” Lake said. “Our government does not believe that a certificate should be granted before these important questions are answered.”
According to Enbridge executive Janet Holder, those important questions can’t all be answered until the hearings are over. The company maintains that every river crossing and spill response plan can’t be done in detail during the two-year hearings.
B.C.’s final submission runs to nearly 100 pages. It goes into detail on the inconsistencies and unanswered questions on such vital topics as whether diluted bitumen can sink in water.
In short, the province argues that it can sink if the oil is in fresh water, or if it is exposed to weathering so lighter fractions evaporate, or if it is mixed with sediments that increase its density.
These are pertinent conditions if heavy oil were to leak into a river in springtime, when water runs fast and cold and brown with sediment. Then there are the obstacles presented by responding to a spill in remote wilderness and heavy snow.
Given both provincial and aboriginal opposition in B.C., the Enbridge pipeline is unlikely to be imposed, and last week Conservative cabinet minister James Moore clearly ruled that out. The B.C. government has consistently maintained that the current project does not meet Clark’s often-repeated five conditions, including the vaguely defined “fair share” of revenues, and Moore said the federal government agrees with those conditions.
The B.C. government has to face some other uncomfortable realities as well. If heavy oil pipelines are such a risk, how does B.C. manage the one that has stretched across remote and populated areas for 60 years?
Does the government take a stand against new pipelines, and then watch as rail cars full of heavy oil cross those same rivers? No permit is required for that, and in fact there are more hazardous materials than oil moving by rail and road across the province today.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com