What are we to make to B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s tiff with Alberta Premier Alison Redford?
The obvious answer is that Clark knows a gift when it comes on such an obviously golden platter. If our premier hadn’t jumped on the chance to bolster her standing in the polls, she would have taken a prize for stupidity instead.
For a few months, at least, she can pose as the heroine of our province, the defender of our rights from the perceived assault by Enbridge, the Alberta oil industry and that province’s government.
But how long can that halo crown her head?
It depends in part on which comes first: the provincial election due next May or a decision by the National Energy Board, the environmental commission involved and the federal government to go ahead with the proposal to ship Athabasca oilsands crude across north-central B.C.
If the Northern Gateway plan is approved first, Clark will face a major challenge. It is not clear whether a provincial government has the constitutional power to block a project declared by Ottawa to be in the national interest.
No doubt B.C. could — and probably would — appeal to the courts, and that might delay things and keep the halo in place for some months more.
But the underlying problem for Clark is that it is a very shaky halo. Clark hasn’t said that she will oppose Northern Gateway, period, but only that she won’t allow it to cross B.C. unless certain conditions are met.
Certainly those conditions are justifiable (although Clark hasn’t specified the share of revenue she wants) but even if she can negotiate a bargain that satisfies her she will still be far from out of the woods.
Her fundamental problem is that a great many British Columbians — including, so far at least, many of the First Nations whose claimed territory the line would traverse — don’t want the pipeline built under any conditions.
Perhaps enough of the First Nations can eventually be bribed into consenting, and perhaps the route can be jigged to circumvent the rest. But the project will remain at root an environmental issue rather than simply a political and economic one. And that, of course, is why it constitutes a challenge to all British Columbians.
Granted, the petroleum industry in general and the oilsands in particular have been and could continue to be of considerable economic benefit to Canada and, to a lesser degree, to B.C. But at some point we have to decide whether these benefits are worth paying the environmental price.
I think the Northern Gateway project makes facing up to that question unavoidable now.
There are, first of all, the risks involved, the possibility of a pipeline break or an oil-tanker spillage, either of which could do immense environmental damage. There is also the inevitability that the contemplated expansion of oilsands production would mean increased environmental hazards at that point.
But behind those risks lies, writ larger than ever before in this country, this question: Is this not the time to take a stand against our reliance on oil as our major energy source? Should a resounding no to Northern Gateway be a declaration that it is time our governments and the relevant industries began researching into and developing alternative energy sources in earnest?
My answer is an unequivocal yes. But it won’t happen unless a majority of my fellow citizens agree — and take whatever steps they can to voice that agreement loud and clear.
Peter Hepher is a retired journalist living in Creston.