05/24/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 07/24/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. Election Means More Environmental Strife

British Columbia had all the makings of Canada's "environmental election." Pipelines and tankers, forests and coastlines, oil and gas, dominated much of the political debate and news coverage.

But in the end, pro-development Christy Clark won; pro-environment Adrian Dix lost. On the 'left coast' known for David Suzuki and the 'War in the Woods,' this is not small beer.

So, should pro-growth advocates be celebrating the end of the road for environmentalism as a political force?

Not so fast.

NDP leader Adrian Dix abruptly shifted his stance to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline in an attempt to hold back early Green Party momentum making him two for two in opposition to pipeline development. He received strong public support and canvassing help from many influential environmental activists in response.

The NDP and its allies made saying 'no' a crystal-clear policy direction. No to pipelines; no to tanker traffic. Dix's flip-flop on one pipeline position to match his opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline actually fit this bill.

But in a broader debate framed over development or not, development wins. "No" is good local backyard politics where activists congregate but, we are seeing, is pretty unappealing provincial or national politics.

In contrast, Premier Christy Clark's position on new pipeline development took more twists and turns than a mountain pass, but she managed to keep her options open while carving out a winning pro-economic growth agenda.

"Canada starts here," she boldly proclaimed in an early speech on jobs as the new Premier of British Columbia. Less than a year later, down in the polls, Ms. Clark abruptly put up a whole new set of barriers before she would agree to support the Northern Gateway pipeline crossing BC to ship Alberta oil to China and the Pacific. "Canada ends here," seemed more accurate to some. Her famous five conditions -- from environmental protection assurances to BC resource revenue benefits -- showed up verbatim in the Liberal election platform. No going back here.

Now, rejuvenated with a surprise come-from-behind win in Tuesday's election on a briskly pro-development orientation, she will need to reconcile the competing attitudes she holds when it comes to energy, pipelines, and more. Votes aside, environmental and economic trade-offs still need to be made (more LNG development will, for example, eviscerate any hope of achieving BC's 2020 carbon emissions target), while the social licence energy companies require still needs to be earned. None of that has changed.

We can expect environmentalists will pounce in an attempt to keep saying 'no'. If anything, that 'no' could become more radical and strident than we have seen to date. With no voice in government, frustrated by a near-certain win that became a stunning overnight loss, this is entirely plausible. And entirely counter-productive for developing Canada's energy resources the right way.

What the B.C. election proves is the promise of sustainable development is further away, not closer. Sustainable development does not mean 'no' development. It never has. It means development that integrates environmental and economic concerns together; not one or the other or one over the other.

The radicalization of voices and positions around energy development in particular, by governments and politicians, environmentalists and activists, think tanks and academics, has taken a toll. Polarization is now the norm. Shouts from the margins are squeezing out the centre. This has real implications for the country as a whole.

Alberta's greatest sustainability challenge is due west, not down south. B.C.'s greatest sustainability challenge is across the bay, not across the mountains. Reconciling the two is their biggest collective challenge. That begins with understanding where each is coming from and what each is dealing with.

For environmentalists, resisting temptation will be the hardest challenge. The urge to step up the fight from the outside will be stronger than ever. Some may even find this more comfortable.

In the end, though, dialogue and process are the best tools we can use. Quintessentially and quaintly Canadian, for sure. But tried and true may be just the right tonic, right about now.