VANCOUVER - A former federal environment minister has joined the mounting fracas around the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, arguing the project is not in Canada's best interest and that Enbridge (TSX:ENB) is the "last company in North America" that should be permitted to do the job.
But David Anderson does not agree with his First Nations groups and environmentalists that have harsh words for the position taken by British Columbia's premier, instead lauding Christy Clark for playing her cards right.
"This harumphing and huffing and puffing and 'Christy Clark doesn't understand it' — She's smart as a fox on this one," Anderson said in an interview after joining several anti-pipeline activists who called on the premier to take a tougher stand.
"She understands that the whole concept of royalties must be brought up and we're going to have to shake that tree pretty hard and we don't know what's going to fall out of it. She's started that debate. No one has dared do it since Trudeau."
Last week, Clark walked out of talks at an annual premiers' meeting that included discussion about crafting a national energy strategy.
She declared Alberta must negotiate sharing economic benefits, just days after her ministers announced five preconditions that must be met in order for the province to even begin to consider shoring up its support.
Clark and opponents of the pipeline agree Alberta stands to gain the lion's share of economic benefits while B.C. takes on most of the environmental risks.
Clark has not clearly stated how much more she wants in exchange, or whether it would be skimmed from royalties. However, the government has said it's not interested in taxing Enbridge any further.
The $6-billion twin pipeline would flow crude from Alberta's oil sands to a port on B.C.'s west coast for export to Asia.
Regardless of his view that Clark has deftly handled the situation, the Victoria-based former Liberal cabinet minister came out swinging against Calgary-based Enbridge.
"Enbridge clearly has a cowboy culture quite inappropriate for building a pipeline in one of the most sensitive parts of the world," said Anderson, citing a series of Enbridge spills, one as recently as Friday in Wisconsin.
He said the company has demonstrated "years of inadequate behaviour," highlighting the oft-cited report by U.S. investigators that describes employees' response to a calamitous leak near Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010 as the "Keystone Kops."
And he was critical of the company's failure to give the National Energy Board the names of the companies that will be contracted by Enbridge to get the bitumen from Alberta to Asia.
"We have not got the right regulatory system to analyze this effectively, they have not done an effective job in asking for information from the company, the company itself is not the right one and the place they want to put the port and pipeline is one of the worst," Anderson said.
A spokesman for Enbridge did not respond to a request for an interview.
But Clark's demand that B.C. receive greater compensation for potentially agreeing to take on the risk of an oil spill as a result of the pipeline didn't impress Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
The money doesn't matter, he said.
"No way, absolutely no way, will we allow or tolerate" the project, he said.
"We will fight this through the Joint Review Panel, which we are doing. We will fight this proposal in the courts and if necessary, we will oppose this proposal on the land itself."
Phillip called the struggle to shut down the project the largest issue he's ever had to deal with, characterizing it as "more significant" than both the 1990 Oka and 1995 Ipperwash land disputes in Quebec and Ontario.
The premier has been criticized both for not taking a strong enough stand and also for getting involved at all, with some experts arguing the project is ultimately a matter of federal jurisdiction.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake has suggested the province could block the pipeline by refusing to grant upwards of 60 permits or not allowing access to hydro power.
Prof. Jamie Lawson, at the University of Victoria, said technically Ottawa, could trump B.C.'s qualms by declaring the project to be of general advantage to Canada, or to two or more provinces.
"But that is something that means the federal government would be overriding provincial powers," he said. "And I think the federal government in recent years has been hesitant to use (it)."