OTTAWA - Only two years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the Northern Gateway pipeline project as in Canada's "vital interest." His natural resources minister called opponents "radicals."
But on the day that his government gave its sanction to the project — as long as Enbridge Inc. meets 209 conditions — nary a Conservative minister or MP was there to announce it.
The news came, instead, via a colourless release with the bureaucratic title "Government of Canada Accepts Recommendation to Impose 209 Conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal." The usual prefix, "Harper Government," was absent.
The surgical gloves approach speaks volumes on the tough position the Conservative government find itself in on the project.
On the one hand, it cannot distance itself entirely from a project and a review process that is has backed, nor abandon its support for the Canadian resource sector and the push to get Alberta oil to tidewater.
On the other hand, Northern Gateway is no done deal, and continuing to hitch a political wagon to something that might never see the light of day doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Harper, who responded in question period to the issue before the announcement, focused squarely on the review process.
"This government has approved some projects, not approved others, and conditionally approved some, based on the findings of panels, based on the finding of fact," Harper said.
The NDP and the Liberals immediately jumped on the announcement as an opportunity to make political hay. The New Democrats already have a website entitled "Take Back our Coasts," with lines such as "Stephen Harper will do anything to push his big oil agenda. Don’t let him risk our coast, too."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair vowed to set aside the decision should he win office in 2015, and predicted it would be a ballot box question during the next campaign. He addressed reporters flanked by members of his BC caucus.
"It already is an election issue in British Columbia, that's why the more than 20 Conservative MPs (from the province) are hiding under their desks right now," Mulcair said.
The Liberals, meanwhile, take a slightly different tack — they are opposed to Northern Gateway but not to the Keystone XL pipeline project into the United States.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the main issue is that the Conservatives have made a mess of the natural resources file.
"This government has actually hindered our ability to get our resources to market by not doing its homework, by not standing up for long-term environmental sustainability and not building the right kind of partnerships with communities including First Nations communities," said Trudeau.
Still, pipeline politics might not be as cut and dry as the NDP or the Liberals might hope in British Columbia. Former B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix drew fire when he suddenly opposed the twinning Kinder Morgan pipeline.
And while polls suggest a majority of British Columbians are opposed to the Northern Gateway project, that still leaves large numbers of voters who aren't — leaving the Conservatives to brand themselves as the only choice of citizens who support natural resource development and the jobs it might bring.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who represented a B.C. riding, says there's no way the government could have said no to the Northern Gateway project. He also doesn't envision a major threat to Conservatives seeking re-election in the province.
"If they were seen to abandon this project just for political reasons, and in spite of the significant environmental go ahead that it's been given, the level of cynicism would be extremely high," said Day, who is a supporter of the pipeline.
"If they cancelled a project of this nature just for political reasons, it would outstrip anything that (former Ontario premier) Dalton McGuinty and Premier Wynne will continue to face on the cancellation of their gas plants projects to the tune of about a billion dollars."