When Stephen Harper pronounced it was a “national priority” to get Alberta crude to the Asian market, he went to Switzerland to deliver the message.
Some 30 months later, when he gave the green light to Enbridge’s $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline — the physical conduit of the “national priority’’ — he released a statement.
Neither the prime minister nor his natural resources minister, nor any of the 21 British Columbia Conservative MPs, sought out a single camera to explain why this decision — one of the most momentous of Harper’s time in power — was vital for the well-being of the West Coast, the Alberta oilpatch or Canada as a whole.
Instead, the Conservatives scurried into the Ottawa evening, leaving the field to their many vocal political opponents, all of whom vowed to overturn the decision.
Harper really had no choice but to OK the project with the 209 conditions placed on it by the joint review panel of the National Energy Board.
He set all the rules.
He streamlined the environmental process, he gave himself the final say, he set the timing, he hand-picked the ministers he wanted to sell this megaproject to environmentalists, aboriginals, British Columbians and Canadians.
Despite controlling every aspect of this file, Harper was still unable to close the deal and was left with no option but to spend a bagful of his dwindling political capital on something that may never be built.
If the prime minister’s head is in a political guillotine, he placed it there himself.
Regulatory approval is one thing. Social licence is another, and even while controlling all the levers, Harper has not earned that social licence, certainly not in British Columbia, to build a pipeline across rugged terrain to Kitimat, where it will be loaded onto tankers traversing the narrow, treacherous Douglas Channel in often hostile weather.
He couldn’t say no.
It would have run counter to everything he has been preaching since this project was first placed in the hands of the NEB amidst an outbreak of Conservative cheerleading, during which environmentalists were branded “radicals” and accused of money-laundering and kowtowing to their American puppet masters, their charitable status placed under scrutiny in a bid to intimidate.
Joe Oliver, often cranky, always partisan, set the tone as the former natural resources minister, but he had company in the former environment minister, Peter Kent, and Treasury Board president, Tony Clement.
Some 50 aboriginal communities along the route, which should have been engaged early, often and intensively, were given lip service by the government. That was the verdict even of the envoy belatedly appointed by the Conservatives. Most B.C. First Nations have signed no treaties with governments and control their ancestral lands and rights.
Harper couldn’t say no because of what was at stake economically and what it is costing this country with the Alberta bitumen unable to get to tidewater.
Harper couldn’t say no because, after refusing to take “no” for an answer from U.S. President Barack Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline, a “no” on Northern Gateway would have sparked guffaws in the White House and the U.S. State Department.
He couldn’t buy time. That was exactly what he and others in his government had accused Obama of doing by refusing to pronounce on Keystone, punting it down the line, hiding behind regulatory rules rather than dealing with a political grenade.
So, what did Harper buy Tuesday?
A project with more than 200 conditions placed on Enbridge; five more placed on it by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who controls 60 permits needed for construction; at least five court challenges underway or in the planning stage; a threat of a grassroots provincial referendum to kill the pipeline; widespread provincial opposition; threats of social unrest, and the opposition of Tom Mulcair and his New Democrats, Justin Trudeau and his Liberals and Elizabeth May of the Greens.
Is British Columbia public opinion malleable?
According to NDP MP Nathan Cullen, whose riding includes Kitimat, that opinion is “calcified” and not only in the coastal town that would benefit most directly from the project, which overwhelmingly turned down Gateway in a non-binding plebiscite earlier this spring.
Cullen says he has attended meetings in Kelowna, Kamloops and beyond — none of them environmental hotbeds — which have drawn hundreds of Gateway opponents.
These are not the regular malcontents. These are people who have never before attended a political meeting.
There will be 42 seats up for grabs in B.C. in 2015.
Harper has fired the first shot in the pipeline wars, but B.C. voters may be itching to return fire at the ballot box.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.