Clark's stance a huge gamble

walking out of a premiers' meeting last Friday, Christy Clark took the biggest gamble of her political career. When the issue of a national energy strategy arose, Clark got up and left.

At a media briefing outside, she announced that B.C. will take not part in such a strategy until concerns around the Northern Gateway pipeline are solved. These are very high stakes.

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Until recently, it seemed the pipeline issue had baffled Clark and her colleagues. The line would carry oil from Alberta to newly constructed port facilities at Kitimat in northern B.C.

On the one hand, B.C. stands to gain billions of dollars in tax revenue from the project. And there will be a major boost in employment, much of it in small communities hard hit by the forest-sector downturn.

On the other hand, concerns about the risk of an oil spill have dogged the project, and recent spills in the U.S. have only made things worse.

The provincial NDP is already on record as opposing the project in its entirety. But for months Clark sat on the fence, insisting she needed more information.

Then early last week, it looked like the premier had hit on a solution. She agreed to support the project, but only if several conditions were met. Topping the list, the government of Alberta would have to compensate B.C. for the environmental risks associated with the pipeline.

However, Alberta's Premier Alison Redford bridled. Perhaps she saw it as a rerun of Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program, when Ottawa grabbed oil revenues from western Canada.

In any case, Alberta said no, and Clark used the premiers' meeting to up the ante: Without a pipeline deal, there would be no national energy strategy.

As a publicity gesture, it was an instant winner. If Canadians in other parts of the country hadn't heard about this issue before, they certainly have now. And factually speaking, Clark has a case. As things stand, we are being asked to assume an unfair amount of the risk.

Redford's response, that B.C. should take that up with the pipeline company, ignores the financial realities of the project. The real deep pockets here belong to the Alberta treasury.

Unfortunately, Clark chose to frame her demands in terms that seem designed to invite a refusal. Unless she got what she wanted, the premier told reporters, "no pipeline." That sounds more like someone demanding a ransom than opening a negotiation.

It's difficult to see how Redford could bow to such a threat. Half of the Alberta economy is based on oil and gas. If B.C. can demand a share of royalties whenever petroleum products are piped across its territory, so presumably can other provinces.

Redford may also have the Canadian constitution on her side. Interprovincial projects like the Northern Gateway line fall under federal jurisdiction.

And she may have some new allies. It's unlikely that Clark impressed the premiers by walking out on them.

So where are we at now? The good news, if Clark genuinely wants a deal, is that this can still be fixed.

If she tones down the rhetoric and offers a collegial solution, it's likely Alberta will talk. No one needs an interprovincial war.

But if the real purpose here, for domestic reasons, was to kill any agreement, some very bad days lie ahead.

Alberta will never forget it if B.C. tries to cut off a major route to the sea. There will almost certainly be tit-for-tat measures - perhaps a levy on B.C. lumber or natural gas.

And Clark might like to remember this: When you build a wall to keep your neighbours out, you also fence yourself in.

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