May 222013
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Pipeline politics proved to be litmus test for voters.

by Gillian Steward

CALGARY — Politics in British Columbia has always been volatile and unpredictable, as last week’s election again proved. But it also was instructive in another way. It was the first major election campaign in Canada to feature both the economy and the environment as key issues.

That is surely a sign of the times. And even though Premier Christy Clark and her intense focus on the economy garnered the most seats for the Liberals, the popular vote tells another story.

The Liberals raked in 44 percent of the popular vote but the combined vote of Adrian Dix’s NDP (39) and the Green party (8) totals 47 percent. BC voters rendered a split decision when trying to decide whether they favour protecting the environment or protecting their province’s prosperity.

So the question remains: how will British Columbians reconcile these two competing interests? And how will that affect the rest of the Canada?

Somehow, opposing the Northern Gateway pipeway became about protecting aboriginal rights and pristine wilderness — whereas voters apparently saw the Kinder Morgan pipeline as being about jobs.

Of most interest to Albertans is whether or not two proposed pipelines crucial to the Alberta economy will proceed through BC and under what conditions. During the election campaign, those pipelines came to symbolize the choice between economic growth and environmental protection.

Dix’s announcement midway through the campaign that he opposed the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline that would carry bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to tankers in Vancouver’s port surely painted the NDP as scary job killers.

Both Dix and Clark had already voiced opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline that also would carry tarry bitumen. But opposing that pipeline had somehow become more symbolic than real: it was about protecting aboriginal rights and pristine wilderness.

But did that mean that most people in BC were opposed to all pipelines? Apparently not. In the minds of many voters, the Kinder Morgan line was much more tied to the province’s future prosperity. Dix had gone too far.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch how British Columbians resolve this dilemma. Protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gases are obviously important to a lot of people in that province. But so is resource development and the employment it creates for professionals, technicians and construction workers.

Viewed from Alberta, it was refreshing to see those issues so fiercely debated. Voters in BC had to decide if the risk of environmental damage from oil spills was more important than employment opportunities. They mulled over whether BC should accept oil from extraction operations that will significantly increase greenhouse gases for decades. They argued about the impact of hundreds of oil tankers plying coastal waters.

That doesn’t happen in Alberta.

During last year’s provincial election in Alberta, oilsands development and the transport of bitumen were not high on the campaign agenda. It’s a given here that oilsands development is a good thing and getting the bitumen to market, any market, is good for the province and the rest of the country.

Most Albertans can’t understand why people in BC wouldn’t want to capitalize on that development and increase their own chances for prosperity. And they resent any attempts to interfere with Alberta’s economic plans.

They prefer that Premier Alison Redford and Prime Minister Stephen Harper focus on promoting and marketing the oilsands. And that is indeed what they do. Getting the tarry stuff to market is their prime concern, not environmental issues.

Just two days after the BC election, Harper was in New York touting the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry bitumen to the Texas coast if eventually approved by Barack Obama.

Harper pretty much dismissed concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands operations by declaring that they were no worse than in other parts of the world that produce heavy oil.

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s, when premier Peter Lougheed decided to kick start oilsands development, the Alberta government undertook all sorts of investigations and studies into the environmental and social impacts of oilsands expansion in order to develop sound policies and regulations.

But by the mid-1990s, the government had abandoned that role in favour of facilitating private sector investment in the oilsands.

That left quite a vacuum in the field of environmental research and advocacy, a vacuum that has since been filled by effective environmental NGOs such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, not exactly what the government had anticipated.

The BC election is over but the tussling over the economy and the environment, energy and sustainability, jobs and eco-justice is far from finished.

About Gillian Steward

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

© Copyright 2013 Gillian Steward, All rights Reserved. Written For:

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