Northern Gateway political suicide for Conservatives

After years spent aggressively cheerleading every proposed pipeline development from the sidelines, one would assume that Stephen Harper’s government would relish the opportunity that will be upon it to move one project forward in 2014.

After years spent aggressively cheerleading every proposed pipeline development from the sidelines, one would assume that Stephen Harper’s government would relish the opportunity that will be upon it to move one project forward in 2014.

But in this instance little should be further from the truth, for the next stage of the pipeline debate is more likely to see the ruling Conservatives score a goal in their own net than actually bring their energy agenda closer to a successful completion.

It is politically unfortunate for Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives that the first of the handful of ongoing pipeline plans to come up for cabinet approval is the Enbridge Northern Gateway project.

An independent panel of the National Energy Board recommended that it go ahead last month and the next step, which involves securing the green light from Harper’s cabinet later this year, is widely considered a formality. Yet it is not a decision that the cabinet should take lightly, for giving the go-ahead to Northern Gateway has the potential to further poison the pipeline well for the Conservative government and its industry allies.

None of the other proposed pipelines faces as solid a barrage of opposition as the bid to link Alberta’s oilsands to the British Columbia port of Kitimat and then onward through the ecologically sensitive Douglas Channel to Asian markets.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals support Keystone XL’s plan to link Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair agrees in principle with plans to link the oilsands to the refineries of Canada’s East Coast but both parties oppose Northern Gateway.

Moreover, in contrast to the west-to-east projects that enjoy cautious provincial support in Atlantic Canada, Enbridge’s plan does not at this juncture have the blessing of B.C.’s Liberal government.

As a result, the prognosis on the pipeline actually seeing the light of day — even if it is speedily approved by the federal cabinet — remains negative. This is a battle that will not be decisively won or lost on Parliament Hill in 2014 but it does stand to inflict some collateral damage to the Conservatives’ larger pipeline ambitions.

Among the major impediments to Harper’s energy agenda has been his government’s laissez-faire attitude to climate change and the environment. Over the past eight years, the most pro-pipeline government in Canadian history has managed to make its environmental record a liability to the energy industry it seeks to assist.

By giving the go-ahead to Northern Gateway, a federal government that has earned the well-deserved reputation of having never met a pipeline that it did not want to embrace only stands to cement that perception.

And while Northern Gateway could have some wedge potential as an issue for the Conservatives in B.C. in the 2015 election as supporters of the project presumably rally behind its only federal backer, it could also set back the party and other pipeline plans elsewhere in Canada and abroad.

B.C. has a history of environmentally-based trench wars and those that involved logging on Haida Gwaii or Clayoquot Sound quickly rose to national and international pre-eminence. Presumably the last thing the Canadian oil industry needs is an epic standoff of that kind over Northern Gateway.

What is certain is the Liberal and the NDP’s opposition to the project will only stiffen the resolve of the wide coalition of environmentalists and First Nations communities that oppose the pipeline in the lead-up to the 2015 federal election.

Between now and then chances that the Liberals will soften their position and neutralize the issue by joining the Conservatives in the pro-Northern Gateway camp range from slim to non-existent. Over and above the particularities of this project, Trudeau’s party sees its opposition to Northern Gateway as leverage to exact a social licence for the other — so far less contentious — pipelines.

The prime minister’s militant pro-pipeline rhetoric on the international and the national scene has left him with little room to pull back, but given a choice, Northern Gateway should be the last hill on which a federal government would choose to make a stand for its energy agenda.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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