B.C. Liberals defuse Kinder Morgan pipeline issue just in time for by-elections

An oil tanker in Prince William Sound. | Photo by rickz

An oil tanker in Prince William Sound. | Photo by rickz

Long overdue by-elections are finally taking places to fill two vacant seats in B.C.’s legislature. For a couple of months, opposition MLAs have been calling on Premier Christy Clark to hurry up and call the interim elections in the ridings of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant and Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, where MLAs had resigned earlier in 2015 to run in the federal election.

Early in 2016, Clark finally obliged, setting the two by-election votes for Feb. 2. Melanie Mark is expected to win handily in Mount Pleasant, one of the safest NDP seats in B.C., while a closer race is expected in Burke Mountain, where the Liberals’ margin of victory was narrower in the last provincial election. The NDP’s Jodie Wickens and B.C. Liberal Joan Isaacs will battle it out in Coquitlam, but it’s not a simple two-way race. The Green Party is running legendary punk rocker and long-time social justice activist Joey Keithley, who is widely respected across party lines for his progressive politics.

For the NDP, strong showings in both by-elections will help bolster the party base, still shaken by the stunning electoral defeat of 2013. After 15 years of B.C. Liberals in power, there is a strong appetite for political change in B.C., but also lingering doubts that the NDP can be the vehicle to inspire a broad enough coalition to oust the entrenched governing party.

Soon after calling the by-elections, Clark surprised many observers by announcing the Province of B.C.’s formal opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline. National Energy Board hearings are currently taking place in Burnaby, and the planned tar sands pipeline has become a lightning rod of opposition from environmental groups, affected municipalities, and local First Nations.

It’s quite a reversal for the B.C. Liberals to come out against the pipeline, especially given the way the issue played out in the 2013 campaign. At the time, Clark and the Liberals pounced on then NDP leader Adrian Dix’s announcement of opposition to Kinder Morgan’s plans. The mainstream media magnified the Liberals’ message that the NDP’s stance was proof that they were hostile to business interests and couldn’t be trusted. Dix and the NDP, having waited until mid-campaign to come out with a clear position, were unable to articulate a forceful defence of their position. In countless election post-mortems, the NDP’s Kinder Morgan stance was cited as a turning point, and used by pipeline advocates to push their case for this mega-project that would see Vancouver’s harbour packed with oil export tankers.

What a difference a few years can make. With the Liberals’ own reversal on Kinder Morgan, we can perhaps now finally lay to rest the myth that the NDP’s stance was what did them in last time. In reality, the pipeline has always galvanized major concern from voters, especially in Vancouver, Burnaby and the north shore here in the Lower Mainland. Besides that, Trans Mountain has been steadfastly opposed from the beginning by the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, who are now joined by a powerful coalition of Indigenous nations.

The more people have learned about this proposed pipeline, the more politically toxic it has become in B.C. Burnaby’s Mayor Derek Corrigan has gone as far as to vow to engage in civil disobedience to stop construction, if it comes to that. And he’s not alone. There is a diverse and dynamic climate movement focused on stopping Kinder Morgan. The rallies taking place in Burnaby at the NEB hearings are evidence of the community anger and willingness to mobilize against this pipeline.

All this helps explain the timing of Premier’s Clark opposition. This is not a principled stand the Liberals are taking, but a qualified one, leaving the door open by saying they’re not in favour of Kinder Morgan “at this time.” With oil at $30/barrel and Kinder Morgan’s stock dropping, this pipeline isn’t getting built anytime soon. Maybe Clark knows, that with changes coming from the new federal government to the NEB process, this issue won’t be decided for good until after next year’s provincial election.

One thing is clear: it’s smart politics by Christy Clark to take the issue of Kinder Morgan off the table at this time.