OTTAWA and EDMONTON - Politically, the Northern Gateway project isn't risk-free for Canada's western provinces.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has refused to take a position until the National Energy Board panel has ruled. The board begins hearings this week in northern B.C., with a decision expected in late 2013, well after the scheduled provincial election to take place in the spring of that year.
But her centre-right government is sure to get squeezed on both sides during an expected protest campaign against Northern Gateway to be waged by environmentalists and First Nations organizations.
B.C. New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix, leading in most polls, hasn't made a formal declaration on the project but is expected to announce soon that his party is opposed. Conservative Leader John Cummins, who is bleeding considerable support from Clark's right flank, is an enthusiastic supporter.
B.C. political analyst Norman Ruff predicts that Clark will soon be forced off the fence.
"Pressures from Ottawa, the business community and within her own cabinet — not to mention the ever-rising political threat from Cummins — will sooner or later force her to take her gloves off," said the retired University of Victoria political scientist.
While there is far less organized opposition to Northern Gateway in Alberta, Premier Alison Redford – an enthusiastic supporter of selling Alberta bitumen in Asian markets – risks being blamed if the project gets stalled.
"I think there's an awful lot of pressure politically to support the Gateway pipeline, and for all sorts of good reasons," said Ken Chapman, executive director of the Fort McMurray-based Oilsands Developers Group.
As an industry group representative, Chapman – who has worked with the Progressive Conservative party and Alberta Human Resources Minister Dave Hancock in the past – would not discuss the impact Gateway might have on a provincial election expected this spring.
"There will be those who will try and make this a political issue," he said.
One of them will be Redford's key opponent on the right, Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, who has already lambasted the premier for failing to convince Clark to become a supporter.
Smith's criticism finds fertile ground among some Albertans who are becoming more vocally defensive of Alberta's oil industry. Recent efforts by big-name companies to avoid Alberta bitumen-based fuel, for example, have resulted in social media firestorms as some Albertans promise to counter-boycott everything from personal beauty products to bananas.
Alberta's long-sitting Tory government faced some criticism last fall when the Keystone XL pipeline extension through the United States was put on hold. Throughout the U.S. review process of the pipeline, aimed at taking bitumen to the Gulf Coast, the government purchased advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers, made multiple visits to the U.S., and had been successful in offering more oilsands tours to foreign dignitaries and journalists than ever before.
On Redford's left, her support for export pipelines draws a different kind of criticism.
"She's thrown her lot in with the energy companies," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, who hopes to persuade Alberta's left-leaning political parties to include opposition to the Northern Gateway in their election platforms.
McGowan questions the provincial government's decision to promote the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL rather than encouraging the construction of refineries in Alberta, which he says would ensure long-term sustainable job growth.
"It should be part of the election debate," McGowan said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, faces little risk in Alberta, where he won 27 of 28 seats in May. But some of his critics wonder if he's gambling in B.C., a Tory power base where voters in 21 of 36 seats elected Conservatives in the 2011 election.
The NDP's Nathan Cullen, whose vast Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding includes the Kitimat port where tankers would dock if the pipeline is built, said Harper is making a huge mistake by aligning his party so closely to the project.
He said opposition to Northern Gateway cuts across party lines, with Tory-voting hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers and even energy industry workers concerned about the implications of a bitumen pipeline in B.C.'s wilderness.
"It doesn't matter what kind of voter you are, British Columbians care about our coasts and rivers."
University of B.C. forest resources management professor George Hoberg, a frequent blogger on the Northern Gateway issue, said environmental concerns "resonate widely" with swing B.C. voters who would ordinarily vote Liberal or Conservative provincially and Conservative federally.
"So I think there is a significant chance that Clark, and Harper, will feel political pressure on the pipeline from B.C. voters," Hoberg said.
University of Victoria political scientist Kimberly Speers agreed that "many of the B.C. outdoors folks who vote Conservative might be apprehensive about oil spills or any other natural disaster that might affect their livelihood."
University of Northern B.C. political scientist John Young said there is some risk Harper could lose some support in urban ridings, but said pegging political ramifications is pure guesswork at this stage.
University of Lethbridge political scientist Chris Kukucha, meanwhile, questioned whether Harper's base in Western Canada is at any risk.
"Knowing this government, I'm sure they already have polling numbers that suggest this won't be a major long-term threat to support," Kukucha said.
Edmonton Journal, Sat Jan 7 2012
Byline: Peter O'Neil and Trish Audette