Canada's Harper Risks Political Damage Allowing Gateway Pipeline
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper risks a political backlash in British Columbia ahead of next year’s election if his government approves Enbridge Inc. (ENB)’s Northern Gateway pipeline, a Bloomberg-Nanos poll shows.
Forty-seven percent of respondents said they’d be less likely to vote for Harper’s Conservative Party if the government approves the project, including 19 percent of those who said they supported Harper in the 2011 elections. Among the 32 percent who didn’t declare how they voted, respondents were five times less likely to support the Conservatives than back them if the pipeline is approved, the survey found.
The results present a challenge for Harper, who has called Canada an emerging “energy superpower” and made it a national priority to build more energy infrastructure. At the same time, a straight up approval could be unpopular in a province where the Conservatives hold 21 of 36 districts in the legislature and will be key to securing another victory in 2015.
“The Harper government needs to tread carefully on this issue because of the potential negative fall-out for local Conservative candidates in B.C.,” said Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research Group.
Among women, 55 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for Harper if the government supports the project, which would ship crude from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific coast for export to Asia. Thirty-nine percent of men also would be less likely to back the governing party.
Harper’s cabinet must decide by June 17 whether to permit the pipeline. The government could also refer the project back to the regulatory panel that reviewed the route for nearly four years. In December, the panel recommended approval, subject to 209 conditions. The Bloomberg-Nanos poll also found that 34 percent of British Columbians want Harper to reject the C$6.5 billion ($6 billion) route, 33 percent want it delayed for further review and 29 percent want it approved.
Approving the pipeline with further conditions would put the onus on Calgary-based Enbridge to “sell” the project, allowing the government to insulate its own lawmakers against the political fallout of approval, Nanos said.
“The best-case scenario for the government would be to support the project but say they’re going to slow it down and let Enbridge build a coalition,” said Nanos, who also serves as a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They can’t reverse themselves. That would be a concession of defeat.”
The telephone survey of 500 British Columbians was conducted May 27 to May 31, contacting both land lines and mobile phones. The poll is considered accurate 19 times out of 20, with a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
The New Democrats plan to showcase their opposition of Northern Gateway during the next election campaign, said Nathan Cullen, NDP lawmaker for the B.C. district that includes the port town of Kitimat, the pipeline’s end point.
“It’s a crossroads moment and we think this hits all the strong points of the NDP,” he said in a telephone interview.
In addition to environmental risks, voters are concerned about their province becoming simply a conduit for unrefined crude exports, he said. “This is an issue that crosses traditional political lines.”
While crude producers say pipelines such as Northern Gateway and TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL would ease transportation bottlenecks that have depressed the price of Canadian heavy oil, efforts to build energy infrastructure have run into opposition both at home and in the U.S.
Local public opinion has played a role in Harper’s previous decision making on resource-based projects. In 2010, the government rejected Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd.’s bid to buy Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc., largely due to opposition to the sale by provincial leaders and Harper’s own lawmakers from the province.
His decision in 2012 to bar state-owned enterprises from taking control of oil-sands businesses was consistent with polling at the time that found Albertans opposed full ownership by Chinese state-owned firms.
The next federal election is scheduled for October 2015. Harper could seek to dissolve parliament and arrange a vote before then.
British Columbia, home to Lululemon Athletica Inc. (LULU) and the most protected parkland of any of the nation’s 13 provinces or territories, is key to Harper’s majority government. The Conservatives took 46 percent of the province’s vote in 2011, compared with 33 percent for the opposition New Democratic Party and 13 percent for the Liberals.
While most British Columbia Conservatives won their seats with a comfortable pluralities, closer races included cabinet minister John Duncan’s victory in the district of Vancouver Island North by 1,807 votes, or 3.1 percent of the total cast.
The province will get six more districts in the next election, when the number of legislators in the House of Commons will swell to 338 to compensate for population growth in urban areas.
“I’m for science-based decisions, I’m for creating jobs,” B.C. Conservative lawmaker John Weston said today in Ottawa, when asked about the level of public support for the project. “I’m for world-class maritime safety and for pipeline safety, and I’m for an environment that our children and grandchildren will be proud of.”
Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford declined to comment on the Bloomberg-Nanos poll.
Premier Christy Clark has said her government will only back Northern Gateway if it satisfies five conditions: completion of an environmental review, “world-leading” oil-spill response systems on water and land, adequate involvement of aboriginal groups, and the distribution of a “fair share” of the fiscal and economic benefits to British Columbia.
A majority of residents in Kitimat, a port town of 9,000 people, opposed the project in a non-binding plebiscite in April. The town’s council later voted to formally oppose it.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Badertscher at email@example.com Chris Fournier