Companies & Industries

Why Stephen Harper will delay approving Northern Gateway

There's more to lose than to win

oil export protesters in British Columbia

Protesters rally against oil exports on the steps of the B.C. legislature in 2012. (Keri Coles/Greenpeace)

Getting photo bombed by climate activists during an appearance before the Vancouver Board of Trade in January is unlikely to change Stephen Harper’s commitment to diversifying Canada’s energy markets. But the prime minister may take more of the 180 days allowed to ponder assent of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline than his supporters in the oilpatch expect.

The timetable set in motion by the Joint Review Panel’s conditional approval of the project on Dec. 19 could prove troublesome for the Tories. Assuming the cabinet greenlights Gateway, proponent Enbridge Inc. would begin construction in the second half of the year. That raises the possibility of court challenges by First Nations, blockades along the pipeline route between Edmonton and Kitimat, B.C., and rallies in major cities during the run-up to a federal election that must be called by October 2015.

The Conservatives have little electoral advantage to gain in pro-pipeline Alberta, where they won all but one seat in 2011. But confrontation over Northern Gateway could put their 21 (out of 36) seats in British Columbia at risk—more than enough to erase their parliamentary majority. (Both provinces will acquire six new constituencies in 2015.)

Up against NDP and Liberal opposition parties both opposed to Gateway, Harper “can’t afford to lose many seats” in B.C., observes Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. “There’s a handful in B.C. that would be up for grabs and potentially turn on this question, particularly in the outer suburbs of Greater Vancouver, not to mention two or three up north.”

Angry protest would doubtless make an election campaign more difficult to control. And B.C. has a history of successful, though often illegal, road blockades against resource development, like the one that halted logging in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. In addition, Harper risks confrontation with the B.C. government, which intervened to oppose Enbridge’s application last spring. Premier Christy Clark seemingly softened her position in November by signing a ceasefire of sorts with Alberta counterpart Alison Redford, but her pronouncements remain ambiguous. “It’s possible the Government of Canada will find itself having to coerce the third-largest province into going along with something it opposes. That’s potentially political dynamite,” says Johnston.

Another risk revolves around First Nations. The pipeline would pass through natives’ traditional territories that were never ceded to the Crown by treaty. Should those bands sue to block Enbridge crews from construction sites, the courts may have the final word on Northern Gateway. Indeed, Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, a group opposed to Gateway, argues that the implications of future court challenges might go further, to “potentially hamstring the [National Energy Board] in any situation where there’s unceded First Nations lands, anywhere in Canada.” Such an outcome could jeopardize Harper’s resource development agenda.

Even so, recent polls suggest opposition among the general public has softened lately. “Right now about 42% of British Columbians support the pipeline,” says Steve Mossop, president of polling firm Insights West, which conducted its latest survey in November. Since the popular vote for the Conservatives in 2011 was less than that, Mossop doesn’t think Harper will pay any great political price for approving the pipeline. “The people who don’t support the pipeline are people who never would have supported him anyway,” he says.

On balance, Harper seems likely to approve Northern Gateway. But the consequences might just be foreboding enough that he’ll take his time arriving at that conclusion.