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Northern Gateway Pipeline Battle Puts Harper In Tough Position

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The disagreement between Christy Clark and Alison Redford over the Northern Gateway pipeline puts Stephen Harper in a delicate position with no easy way out. (Alamy/CP)
The disagreement between Christy Clark and Alison Redford over the Northern Gateway pipeline puts Stephen Harper in a delicate position with no easy way out. (Alamy/CP)

The disagreement between Christy Clark and Alison Redford over the Northern Gateway pipeline puts Stephen Harper in a delicate position with no easy way out.

Harper wants the pipeline to go ahead. Exploiting Canada's natural resources is a key plank in his economic vision for the country and his government has harshly criticized environmental groups that have tried to put up obstacles to Northern Gateway.

Alberta wants the pipeline to be built. The prime minister and some important members of his cabinet hail from the province and want to deliver for their constituents. Alberta is, after all, the heartland of Harper's Conservative Party.

But British Columbia does not want the pipeline. Adrian Dix, leader of the B.C. New Democrats, has the support of almost one in two British Columbians. He is strongly against the pipeline and, as premier, would take an even tougher stance against it than Clark.

Clark is not against the building of the pipeline but wants a larger share of revenues in exchange for the province's large share of the risk. Redford has said British Columbia will not get any of Alberta's portion, so Clark's demands are as good as a "no."

The position Clark has taken puts her on the right side of public opinion in the province. A poll by Forum Research conducted last month indicated only 31 per cent of British Columbians were in favour of the pipeline, compared to 59 per cent opposed. Removing the undecideds from the equation means that two out of every three British Columbians do not want the Northern Gateway pipeline to go ahead.

Where does that leave Stephen Harper? If he pushes hard for the pipeline, the prime minister risks driving his own numbers down to the benefit of the federal NDP. According to the latest polls, the New Democrats have about 37 per cent support in the province to the Tories' 34 per cent, already a 16-point swing in the NDP's favour since the 2011 election. British Columbia is shaping up to be an important battleground in the next federal vote, and with new seats being added to Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland (70 per cent oppose the pipeline on the island, and a comfortable majority in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland) the risk to Harper's re-election chances are strong. And considering Dix's current level of support, Thomas Mulcair has a lot of growth potential.

Forcing the pipeline through also complicates things for Harper at the provincial level. While holding her ground against the prime minister might boost Clark's popularity in some quarters, it might also push Harper's voters into the arms of the B.C. Conservatives. Any increase in support for the party serves to further split the vote on the right and helps the NDP.

But if Harper decides to offer British Columbia part of the federal government's share of the revenues, he might get Clark's approval for the pipeline without much risk to his own party - at least in the short term. This sort of precedent would potentially cause huge problems for the federal government going forward, and with Dix likely to become premier of British Columbia next year, it might be all for naught.

The best outcome for Harper is an agreement between Clark and Redford on the pipeline and the re-election of the B.C. Liberals in May's provincial election. Increasingly, the likelihood of either happening is looking remote.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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