Oil pipelines and tankers have emerged as an election issue in British Columbia, and the parties suggest the positions of their rivals on projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline and the expansion of Kinder Morgan's existing Trans Mountain pipeline are about as clear as Alberta crude.
Even party candidates have grown confused, as evidenced by New Democrat Leonard Krog, whose Twitterverse reversal made headlines this week. Krog had to recant after tweeting the NDP wanted a review of the existing pipeline. In fact, Dix said the expansion of the pipeline would be reviewed.
The Liberals say the New Democrat stance is on shifting sand, and the NDP say the Liberals have surrendered their say to Ottawa.
"I would encourage anyone to try to talk to their candidates to get a bit more direct answer on some of these issues," said Matt Horne, energy analyst for the Pembina Institute and a spokesman for the Organizing for Change coalition pushing a green agenda in the election campaign.
"You have a fair bit of information but there's no question the parties could push a bit further in terms of what their priorities are going to be and how they're going to deal with some of these specific issues."
The $6-billion Northern Gateway project would carry oil from Alberta west to a tanker port to be built in Kitimat, and natural gas condensate east from B.C. to Alberta.
The increased tanker traffic that would result, the potential for an oil spill and the origins of the product — the greenhouse-gas-generating Alberta oil sands — have made the project a target of conservation groups.
The Liberals laid out five conditions a year ago for their support. The project must complete the environmental review process currently underway, it must include a "world-leading" marine oil spill plan, a "world-leading" plan for an oil spill on land, include benefits and involvement of First Nations and provide the province a "fair share" of the economic benefits.
The wording of the conditions is far from definitive, and the first condition ensures the Liberals won't have to pronounce on the project until at least the end of this year, when the joint review panel currently hearing evidence in Prince Rupert must report to the federal government.
Liberal Environment Minister Terry Lake said that's the only fair approach.
"Why would you take a position before there's any evidence presented? It's absolutely ridiculous and it's unfair and it chases away investment," Lake said Wednesday. "If you're a company risking billions of dollars of your shareholders' money on a proposal, why would you even think about investing in a province that makes up their mind about projects before they even enter into a process?"
A few days ago, New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix confirmed opposition to the pipeline. Just what that means for the proposal remains unclear.
Although an inter-provincial project such at the Northern Gateway falls under federal jurisdiction, the NDP have said they would order a provincial environmental assessment.
"The B.C. Liberals failed this province when they handed over decision-making power in the Enbridge decision to Ottawa in 2010," said Dix. "We would... set up a rigorous made-in-B.C. environmental assessment process."
The NDP has not said whether the outcome of that assessment will be the final word on the pipeline's future.
Horne said there is some debate as to whether the province could stop the project.
"It seems pretty clear from the people I've spoken to that if the province is adamantly opposed to a major project like that, it would be very hard to move ahead," he said.
Oil has been flowing through the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Metro Vancouver since 1953, and Kinder Morgan plans to file an application later this year to more than double the capacity of that pipeline. The company doesn't anticipate filing the application until late 2013.
The New Democrats had been undeclared on the proposal until Monday, when Dix announced his opposition. He said he would await the results of any reviews, however, so just what his opposition means is unclear.
"We do not expect Vancouver to become a major oil export port as appears to be suggested in what Kinder Morgan is proposing,'' he said. "I don't think that the port of Vancouver, as busy a port as it is and successful a port as it is, should become a major oil export port."
The province may not have a veto, but they do have power, believe opponents of the projects.
"I think just politically it will be very difficult for the federal government to push a project through on a province that doesn't want it," said Nikki Skuce, spokeswoman for ForestEthics in their campaign against Northern Gateway.
The parties that have no hope of actually ever forming government are clear.
The B.C. Green Party is unequivocally against, the B.C. Conservative party is unequivocally for the pipelines.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to comment on political policy, and company officials carefully side-stepped criticism of the pipeline politicking.
"We want to work with any British Columbia government to ensure that our projects, and any responsible development of our natural resources, benefit all British Columbia residents and help to provide access to hospitals and schools, roads and transit that are critical to healthy and happy families," Ivan Giesbrecht, spokesman for Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB), said Wednesday.
Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan, said he's confident the company can satisfy questions and concerns.
"We understand that the associated public policy discussions about our project will occur, however we believe that the process, including full applications and supporting evidence, should determine the outcome," Anderson said in a statement.
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