COLUMN: Politics and the pipeline

Twinning of Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which runs through Surrey, gets federal approval

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have decided that the twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline will go ahead. The decision, announced Nov. 29, prompted a firestorm of criticism and plenty of political positioning, particularly in B.C.

The pipeline decision has a direct effect on Surrey, as the existing pipeline runs through North Surrey from Port Kells to a location near the Port Mann Bridge, where it crosses the Fraser River. The second pipeline will likely follow a different route. Plans call for it to be located adjacent to the CN rail line through Surrey, with a river crossing to Coquitlam near the existing pipeline.

The Surrey Board of Trade has taken the position that construction of the pipeline is a good thing, while the City of Surrey took a lukewarm position when it made a presentation to the National Energy Board in January. It was concerned about additional costs to local taxpayers, and also suggested the existing pipeline in Surrey, some of which runs through residential neighbourhoods, be closed. The city suggested both pipelines run along the new alignment.

Many Surrey residents are indifferent to the pipeline. Some who are active environmentalists oppose it and some who support economic development back it.

Among those who are paying the most attention are federal and provincial politicians. The federal Liberals, who swept every Surrey seat in the October 2015 election other than South Surrey-White Rock, which is held by Conservative MP Dianne Watts, are paying the most attention.

The near-sweep of Surrey seats by the Liberals was unexpected by many last fall. The NDP is anxious to recapture several seats. And the NDP position on the pipeline is a firm “no.” The party will undoubtedly use that position as strongly as possible in trying to win Surrey seats in the 2019 federal election.

The good news for Liberal MPs is the election is a long time away. If there is a change in the way MPs are elected, as was promised by Trudeau in the 2015 campaign, that could affect the final results and result in a balance of Surrey seats between NDP, Liberal and Conservative contenders.

Provincially, an election is much closer. The B.C. election is on May 9, 2017, just five months from now. The B.C. NDP is taking a strong anti-pipeline position, with much of its opposition based on the risks to the B.C. coast from an oil spill.

The B.C. Liberals are generally supportive of the pipeline for economic development reasons. However, Premier Christy Clark has been both consistent and firm there must be a world-class response to any oil spills, on both land and water, before her government will sign on. She also wants there to be “a fair share of fiscal and economic benefits” to B.C. Thus far, other than construction jobs and additional taxes to various levels of government, there are few obvious economic benefits for B.C.

The pipeline will be a significant issue for voters in the provincial election. It played a part in the 2013 election, when Adrian Dix, who was then leader of the NDP, abruptly came out in opposition to it partway through the campaign. That position was at odds with a hands-off position he had taken earlier, and the B.C. Liberals leaped on his flip-flop and used it to great advantage. It is quite likely the B.C. Liberals won the Surrey-Fleetwood seat because of that shift in position.

This time around, a pipeline decision has been made. It is no longer an intangible. Whether the NDP or B.C. Liberal position on the pipeline is a major factor in helping many voters make their choice at the ballot box remains to be seen.

Whether the pipeline is ever built or not also remains to be seen. It will be challenged in court, particularly by First Nations. It is quite possible there will not be a start in construction by the time the 2019 federal election rolls around. There will almost certainly be some form of civil disobedience along the way as well. This story is far from over.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.

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