Public opinion is too strong against oil tankers for even the federal majority government to take on
In this two-part post we'll analyze the politics of shipping oil from BC's coast.
Vancouver Sun columnist Craig Macinnes, who has struck a pragmatic tone on the idea of shipping oil piped in from Alberta off our coast in past articles, took a dimmer view of the federal government in a recent column titled Harper push for pipelines likely to backfire. Macinnes blasted Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver as being responsible for a "heavy-handed" "verbal barrage" against environmentalists. He says they're trying to "bulldoze opposition" and they "pound home" their point of view.
Besides making the Prime Minister sound like a big meanie (one of the perils of politics the PM is likely used to by now) Macinnes' language echoes that used by oil export opponents. They argue that the corporate executives and federal politicians just aren't in tune with BC's concerns about its natural environment, and would gladly risk a disastrous spill for financial profit. As activist David Suzuki claimed recently, he's being 'bullied' by Harper.
The truth as I see it is far less sinister. The federal government have taken it upon themselves to point out something that had been thus far underreported: that a public relations war has being waged to halt the transport of oil off our west coast to markets in Asia. They also underlined that this PR battle receives funding from American sources, and the vast majority of those grants are funneled through Tides Canada, based here in Vancouver.
Then the feds took further steps to, as they see it, level the playing field.
First, they are enforcing longstanding rules around political activity done by charitable non-profits. Eight million was set aside in the 2012 Budget to give Revenue Canada staff further resources to investigate any legal breaches by Tides Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and other ENGOs. The recent announcement by David Suzuki and Tzeporah Berman that they were leaving the boards of charities (Suzuki Foundation and Greenpeace International respectively) was a tip-off that rules were being bent. Suzuki used his departure to blast the PM even though he'd actually resigned his position last year, long before the Conservatives raised concerns publicly.
Secondly, the federal government proposes to streamline the environmental hearing process by handing it over to provinces, instead of holding duplicate hearings using federal officials.
Lastly, Minister Joe Oliver stated last week that those addressing hearings will be vetted for their interests related to a project. Many opponents were piling on against these projects from outside the region and even outside Canada.
Whether it amount to "bulldozing" opposition, or being less forgiving of loopholes exploited by environmental activists depends upon your perspective. I can confidently say that no BCer wants to be bullied, nor does any person or organization want our rivers, valleys and beaches to be fouled by unforgiving black gunk.
Macinnes may be right that the feds are overplaying their hand. But an Angus Reid public opinion poll shows supremely high support from Canadians for having better checks and balances for environmental groups. Polled about Budget 2012, eighty per cent of respondents were in support of: "￼Requiring charities to provide more information on their political activities, as well as their funding by foreign sources".
However, there are strong signals that the environmentalists have already won, and any plans to ship Alberta's oil to Asia are, so to speak, dead in the water.
Public opinion squarely against the ships
Recent opinion polls show that the public is split down the middle on the matter of pipelines. While many fear the potential for a spill, about half the public understands that there are risks in the movement of our resources over land and water. A poll by Mustel Group released last month shows that 50% of the public are comfortable with the Northern Gateway pipeline project. Perhaps that's because the public assumes that our economy and social benefits such as health care and education rely upon the income these resources generate. There are risks, of course, but they're offset by vital benefits.
But the biggest battle is not with the pipelines. A Justason Market Intelligence poll, also taken last month, finds that the public are overwhelmingly opposed to oil tankers on our west coast. Opposition to "oil supertankers" on BC's coast outstrips support three to one. "Supertanker" is an informal term used to describe the largest tankers. Most British Columbians don't know it is applied to very-large crude carriers (VLCC) and ULCCs with capacity over 250,000 deadweight tonnage, far too large to travel under the Lions Gate Bridge and into Port Metro Vancouver. However, large oil tankers frequently travel our coast shipping Alaskan oil to refineries in the lower 48 states. The public may not like it when asked, but the fact is these ships have already been in our midst for decades.
In a nutshell, the polls provide the reason why no one should fret about being bulldozed by the feds over oil shipments. It's simply too steep a hill to climb politically at this time, even with a majority government. This is not to say it won't happen, but as far as the PMO is concerned, they've done their part and it's time for others to pick up the slack.
The reason the feds and Alberta can afford to turn their backs on B.C. is because the Keystone XL pipeline is sure to be revived. The revised proposal for the route is getting a warmer welcome, and as soon as Obama gets his second mandate Keystone XL is no longer a political liability for him. Some even suggest this is why these Titans of capitalism in the USA use their foundations to fund environmental opposition in Canada—they want to secure our oil before China gets it.
It's interesting to see that Premier Redford in Alberta, as one of her first acts after being re-elected, is already lining up support so she can get the oil moving down to the USA.
As every political soothsayer seems convinced that Adrian Dix will be the next Premier of British Columbia, what to do about the pipelines and the ports will likely be left to the NDP. The NDP like to pretend they're opposed to everything related to the energy sector, but the fact is they've been coy about whether they'll oppose the pipeline at all. As investment begins to flee British Columbia when the NDP govern (there are strong signs it is already leaving the province), it signals dark days ahead for BC's economy, especially if we can't also benefit from the oil patch.
So despite the political alarm bells being rung by Vancouver's mayor and his allies in the environmental movement, the battle to move oil from our coast to Asia is done, and the opponents have won.
- post by Mike. In part two of "Oil and Water", we'll explore what's driving the political opposition to tankers in Vancouver.