With provincial election looming, did B.C. Liberals announce opposition to TransMountain due to public opposition?

In exciting news out of British Columbia yesterday, the provincial government announced that it will be recommending that the National Energy Board (NEB) deny Kinder Morgan’s proposal to construct the TransMountain pipeline.

The reason for their rejection of the proposal, ostensibly, is that Kinder Morgan didn’t meet their “world-leading” safety standards – an explanation that the always-good-for-a-giggle Financial Post didn’t find entirely convincing:

Of the four major export pipeline projects proposed to open new markets for Canadian oil production, the TMX expansion should have been the easiest to pull off because it twins a pipeline that has been safely transporting oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast for 60 years.

But in its final argument to the NEB, which is in the last days of a two-year review, B.C. threw the book at the project, claiming: “the company has not provided enough information around its proposed spill prevention and response for the province to determine if it would use a world leading spills regime.”

This after a review that, according to TMX proponent Kinder Morgan, was one of the most comprehensive in the board’s history and involved the filing of a 16,000-page application, answering 17,000 questions, participation of more than 400 intervenors and of 1,250 commenters, not to mention more than $300 million in costs.

There’s more snarky disbelief further down in the article, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The thing is, I think the FP is on to something here. Because I can just as easily imagine the B.C. government using those exact same statistics to label the consultation and review process “exhaustive” and throwing their support behind the project.

This is the B.C. “Liberal” Party we’re talking about here, after all – in a province where the Conservative Party failed to capture a single seat in the last election, they are the pro-business right-of-centre option. Mining, forestry, and construction corporations have given them nearly $50 million over the last decade, and their victory in the 2013 provincial election was celebrated by the B.C. Chambers of Commerce as “good news for business owners“.

Which is to say, one can easily imagine a parallel universe in which they spun the research and the data in the other direction and supported TransMountain. So why didn’t they IRL?

My hunch – and it’s just a hunch, I’ll admit – is that this is mostly about the next election. The final recommendation from the NEB is expected in late May, just about a year before Election Day in B.C., and the final decision from Justin Trudeau and his cabinet could come anytime after that. This is an issue that’ll be fresh in voters’ minds as the campaign heats up – and it’s already an issue that folks in B.C. feel intensely passionate about.

In this poll from 2014, half of British Columbians were opposed to the expansion, including majorities of women and young people, and an amazing 77% of people saying they were “very” or “somewhat” familiar with the proposal. Since that time, there have been high-profile protests including encampments and court challenges. Celebrities have weighed in. Awareness of, and opposition to, the project has likely increased as well. (If anybody knows of/can track down any more recent polling data for public sentiment on TransMountain in B.C., I’d love to see it!)

My sense, then, is that the Liberals don’t want to run an election campaign while having to defend supporting this contentious pipeline.

This is a little ironic, because TransMountain was a major issue in the 2013 election as well. The NDP’s Adrian Dix took a hardline “No” position on the pipeline, while the Liberals insisted that what was needed was a rigorous process to ensure that the line was safe and that B.C. got its fair share of the profits before the line was approved. After Dix’s unexpected loss, many, including federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, blamed the defeat on Dix’s position, suggesting he too should have adopted a process-based approach. (Mulcair, of course, took exactly this position in last year’s federal election, and it didn’t exactly prove very popular either.)

The moral of the story here, then, is that popular opposition to pipelines does have a major impact on the outcomes of these projects in the long run. Folks have been organizing against TransMountain for years now, and yesterday’s announcement from the B.C. Liberal Party is in many ways a culmination of all that hard work and effort. Meanwhile, as the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation’s court challenge against Line 9 proceeds to the Supreme Court, as opposition to Energy East builds, as the federal Liberals move forward with plans to ban tanker traffic in northern B.C. which would effectively kill Northern Gateway, it looks like 2016 might just be a breakthrough year for the anti-pipeline movement.

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