Is B.C.’s government now leaning against backing the Northern Gateway pipeline?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A damning report over Enbridge Inc.'s handling of a massive U.S. oil-pipeline spill may be giving B.C. Premier Christy Clark the pretext she needs to climb off the fence on the Calgary firm's controversial Northern Gateway project.

Clark slammed Enbridge on Wednesday after the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded pipeline operators waited more than 17 hours before shutting down a pipeline that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan.

Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman compared Enbridge's performance to the "Keystone Kops," bumbling stars of the silent-movie era whose name still today is synonymous with incompetence.

"I think the company should be deeply embarrassed about what unfolded — we saw that in the report," Clark told reporters in Kamloops, B.C., according to The Canadian Press.

"If they think they're going to operate like that in British Columbia, forget it."

Clark has said in the past she'll wait for the results of the National Energy Board's hearings on Northern Gateway, an 1,170-kilometre pipeline that would take bitumin from Alberta's oil sands to an export terminal near Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to Asia.

But despite the potential economic benefits from the $5.5-billion-dollar line's construction and operation, the project is facing a groundswell of opposition in British Columbia.

Many First Nations along the route worry what a pipeline break might do to pristine wilderness in their territories. Other environmentalists argue that besides the potential for a rupture, bringing supertankers through narrow north-coast waterways is asking for Exxon Valdez-sized trouble.

Enbridge's feel-good corporate TV spot pitching Northern Gateway as a pathway to prosperity was spoofed in an animated cartoon by Vancouver Province editorial cartoonist Dan Murphy, only to be yanked off the paper's web site supposedly over copyright issues.

[Related: Vancouver Province pulls cartoonist's Enbridge parody, triggering charges of censorship]

Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer noted the ad was booed "with considerable enthusiasm" by audiences at a movie he was attending when it was screened as part of the pre-show block of commercials.

Clark, whose Liberal government faces voters next May, may figure it's time to climb aboard that bandwagon.

The opposition New Democrats, who lead the Liberals in the polls, have already said they'll kill the project if elected. Leader Adrian Dix has been criticizing Clark for not taking a stand.

Dix declared Clark and the Liberals have gone "absent without leave," Palmer noted in the Sun.

Clark said Wednesday in Kamloops that it's monitoring the National Energy Board process, which has sputtered. A couple of B.C. hearings were cancelled due to security concerns and an Edmonton session was scrapped this week after no one registered to participate before the deadline.

"We have intervener status, we will be engaged in it very directly as they go through their NEB process here," Clark said.

"But I think Enbridge has some pretty important questions to answer, because the results of that report are absolutely unacceptable."

Because the pipeline crosses a provincial boundary, Northern Gateway is a federally regulated project, which limits B.C.'s power over it, the Globe and Mail reported. But it can make things difficult when it comes to things like permits to cross rivers and highways.

Dix, who joined federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in an appearance in Victoria on Wednesday, said he's assembling a legal team to look for ways to kill the project.

Mulcair, an outspoken critic of oil sands development, agreed.

The "conclusive report by the Americans (on the Michigan spill), I think, should be the final nail in that coffin," he said, according to the Vancouver Province.

For its part, Enbridge has said it's made changes in its procedures to ensure such an accident - the largest on-shore oil spill in U.S. history - never happens again.

But speaking in Calgary, Enbridge president Al Monaco conceded the pipeline industry faces "unrelenting opposition to energy projects," the Calgary Herald reported.

"As an industry, I think we need to engage communities early and often and do a better job of explaining the benefits at the local level," Monaco said in a speech Wednesday to the TD Calgary Energy Conference.

"We need to put the public at ease and give them confidence that we can operate safely, and that there will be benefits to communities."