B.C. New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix’s criticism Monday of Kinder Morgan’s proposed $5.4-billion oil pipeline marks the latest twist in an election campaign that, for the first time in B.C.’s modern history, has the oil-and-gas industry emerging as a centrepiece issue.
Dix, already opposed to Enbridge’s $6.5-billion pipeline to Kitimat, stopped just short of condemning the Kinder Morgan plan to twin its existing line from Alberta to Burnaby. He has been under considerable pressure from the environmental movement to take a stand .
Elections fought on oil and gas were once confined almost exclusively to B.C.’s next-door neighbour. But the B.C. Liberals sought to make sure the industry would be top-of-mind when its throne speech and subsequent budget made clear they are betting their political survival on a rosy scenario created by $1 trillion in natural gas riches that the government says could be generated over 30 years.
“Politically, I think a lot of this is uncharted territory,” said University of B.C. political scientist Richard Johnston, an expert on Canadian elections.
The Liberals say the wealth from three to five liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants on the coast could vanquish the province’s $63-billion-and-counting debt, make top-notch health care affordable and even eliminate the provincial sales tax.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for British Columbia,” B.C. Energy Minister Rich Coleman gushed in an interview with The Vancouver Sun.
Playing against the Liberals’ sunny outlook is the argument from the industry’s critics, led by the Green party and environmentalists, that B.C. under the Liberals has a dirty future filled with oil spills and higher greenhouse-gas emissions.
Trying to find a politically safe middle ground between the extremes is the poll-leading New Democratic Party, which hopes to maintain its green credentials while ensuring the business community and middle-of-the-road voters that the party isn’t, as the Liberals argue, anti-development.
The Liberals say the promised bonanza could be put at risk given the NDP’s plan to expand the carbon tax and launch a study into fracking – a method of gas extraction in which a mixture of water, chemicals and sand is injected underground in order to crack rocks so that oil and gas is released.
The NDP is trying to hide a party split on the issue, and “if they go away and study it for two years they’ll miss the opportunity,” says Coleman.
But the NDP says the Liberals are glossing over the risks.
“The government refuses to acknowledge there are downsides to expanding the oil-and-gas sector,” John Horgan, the NDP mining and energy critic, said in an interview. “I think most British Columbians recognize there are downsides, and the challenge for the new government, whoever it might be, is to manage those downsides in the best interests of the public.”
The NDP’s promised scientific review of fracking will look at issues such as water and land use, landowner rights and the effect of LNG expansion on B.C.’s greenhouse gas emission target.
The NDP has also vowed to broaden the carbon tax on oil and gas emissions, which will result in a corporate revenue rise from $35 million in 2014-15 to $100 million in 2016-17. An NDP government would also work with First Nations to develop renewable energy sources, such as wind, to help power LNG plants, which are now expected to be run primarily by the burning of natural gas.
B.C. pollster Evi Mustel describes oil and gas as a “watershed” issue that presents risks for the Liberals and NDP. Despite strong and vocal opposition, many British Columbians support the industry if economic benefits are apparent, according to Mustel.
“From the research we have been conducting, economic issues are still the top issue and the NDP’s success will depend on their ability to convince voters that their policies will not impede economic development,” she said.
The Liberals, in turn, can’t come across as a “drill baby drill” party because women 35 and older tend to be more opposed to the industry, “and these are the very voters Liberals need to attract to have a chance of winning.”
Present and future natural gas activity in B.C. is confined largely to five of B.C.’s 85 provincial ridings – Peace River North and Peace River South, two small-c conservative ridings held by Liberals that are the focus of drilling activity; and Stikine, Skeena and North Coast, NDP ridings that proposed gas and bitumen pipelines would traverse en route to ports in Kitimat and Prince Rupert.
But many more rural and urban ridings are along the route of the two hugely controversial proposed megaprojects .
The Northern Gateway pipeline crosses only four ridings from Peace River South to Skeena. But ForestEthics spokesman Ben West counts 15 B.C. ridings along the Kinder Morgan route that runs from the Prince George-Valemount riding at the Alberta border, down through the two Kamloops ridings to the Fraser Valley, and then through a number of Lower Mainland ridings.
And of course B.C., always Canada’s hotbed of environmentalism, has numerous citizens throughout the province who care deeply about the planet – and plenty of others frustrated by what they view as the green movement’s antidevelopment bias.
The two main parties, while largely bullish on gas exports, both recognize the hyper-sensitivity of the more explosive oil-sands pipeline issue.
Clark has said the province won’t give the nod to the Enbridge or Kinder Morgan projects unless there are “world class” environmental and safety measures, aboriginal rights protection, and more financial benefits for B.C.
Dix, meanwhile, has given a flat “no” to Enbridge and, on Monday, indicated his government is unlikely to support Kinder Morgan’s expansion until the company launches a formal process before the National Energy Board.
UBC’s Johnston predicts the NDP will prove it has found the political sweet spot when British Columbians vote.
“I’ll bet that Horgan does represent the electoral middle ground: environmentally aware but not implacably opposed to job-creating resource development where the economic benefits are largely contained within the province.”
The Liberals have so far tried and failed to use energy as a wedge to win back voters, said pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion. Neither the 2012 conditions on oilsands pipelines nor the throne speech and budget touting energy riches gave the party a bounce.
He said the issue could have its biggest political impact on Vancouver Island, where two Liberal-held ridings – Oak Bay-Gordon Head and Saanich North – could potentially go to the Green party.
B.C.’s two other main parties, the Greens and the Conservatives, are also trying to carve out a niche.
Green leader Jane Sterk argued that there is no daylight between the Liberals and NDP on natural gas development.
The Greens, opposed to both the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan projects, take by far the toughest stand on fracking, saying there must be a moratorium on further drilling until a credible environmental assessment is done.
And the Greens, if they elect MLAs to the legislature, will advocate that LNG plants be run entirely on renewable energy rather than natural gas, which is the current plan.
The B.C. Conservatives are positioning themselves as the most pro-development party, strongly supporting the Northern Gateway pipeline and vowing to repeal the Liberal carbon tax.
But leader John Cummins, who as an MP won praise from environmentalists due to his stand against salmon farming, also speaks to concerns about fracking.
The Conservatives want the next B.C. government to push the province’s Oil and Gas Commission to impose fines on rule-breakers, according to Scott Anderson, a Conservative candidate in Vernon and chairman of the party’s public finance committee.
Anderson said his party wants to protect property owners concerned about the growing number of abandoned wells and the potential danger of those wells and possible water contamination from fracking.
Some environmental groups, meanwhile, have organized hundreds of volunteers to go door-to-door and work on phone banks to help elect – and increase the victory margins of – NDP candidates deemed to be much greener than Horgan.
Ben West, an anti-oilsands campaigner with ForestEthics, said with the NDP is so far ahead, the “real race” is over who will wield influence in caucus.
ForestEthics is specifically backing former Sierra Club of B.C. executive director George Heyman in Vancouver-Fairview, Janet Routledge (an employee with the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation) in North Coast, and human rights lawyer David Eby, who will try for the second time to defeat Clark in the Vancouver-Point Grey riding after coming a close second in the 2011 byelection.
The Business Council of B.C., meanwhile, said any government aiming to fiddle with the natural gas sector has to recognize that multinational corporations planning to spend “tens of billions of dollars” on LNG projects will require a “competitive and stable” fiscal regime.
“British Columbia has a lot riding on the development of the LNG sector,” said executive vice-president Jock Finlayson.
“Not only can LNG provide an important new source of export earnings, government revenue and overall economic growth, but the hard reality is that the province needs to find new markets for its abundant natural gas as the United States inexorably moves toward self-sufficiency in the commodity.”
That argument doesn’t move people like Mary Hatch, one of the grassroots British Columbians working with professional environmentalists in this campaign.
Hatch’s world view was indelibly changed in 2007 when a Kinder Morgan pipeline pierced by a contractor’s backhoe sprayed her home and others near it on Inlet Drive in north Burnaby with synthetic crude oil.
Her house, her lawn and her car were covered with the geyser’s goo. Kinder Morgan covered the cleanup costs and the company, along with two contractors involved, were together hit with $550,000 in penalties.
She and other Burnaby residents formed a group called BROKE – Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion – which has been waging an apparently successful battle to get the NDP off the fence on the Kinder Morgan project.
The retired teacher, 67, has a broader lack of sympathy with the oil-and-gas industry, arguing that it creates few jobs in B.C. and only enriches energy companies.
More than 1,200 kilometres to the north, in Fort St. John in the heart of B.C.’s natural gas boom, Mayor Lori Ackerman doesn’t like the way some British Columbians – especially the environmental groups – are using the wealth of her region as a political football.
“The people of northeast B.C. are very hard-working, and they understand the importance of the environment because that’s their playground as well,” she said.
“So to have people say to us from North America’s largest clear-cut area that they don’t want oil and gas, well, I guess the question back is, ‘what are your bike lanes made of? Asphalt. And what’s in there?’
“People have to become energy literate. They have to understand that those towers in downtown Vancouver aren’t made out of pixie dust. It’s cement and steel. How are those brought into town? How are they made?”
ENERGY AND THE ELECTION
Until now a background issue, party positions on B.C.’s natural gas development and oil pipelines have become central points in the 2013 general election
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