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Les Leyne: Liberals’ pipeline stance stuff of genius

As someone who has done a lot of hard work poking fun at B.C.’s opaque, conditional non-position on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, it’s time to re-assess.

As someone who has done a lot of hard work poking fun at B.C.’s opaque, conditional non-position on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, it’s time to re-assess.

The idea of setting five elastic, unquantifiable conditions on any new heavy-oil pipeline might actually be the stuff of genius.

There were times over the past year when the B.C. Liberals’ pipeline process looked a lot like the cardinal rules of the legislature press gallery: studied indifference, benign neglect and plausible deniability.

The Liberals didn’t bother registering as a government participant. They didn’t bother to submit any evidence. And they took a position that seemed to mean something different to everyone who read it.

Pipelines have to meet “world-class” safety standards, without anyone knowing what that means.

They have to respect First Nations’ rights, something that’s been argued in court for generations, with still no clear word on what that means. And B.C. has to get a “fair share,” without any inkling of how much that is, exactly.

But there’s nothing like winning an election to give an air of vindication. So to the extent the election was about pipelines, the B.C. Liberals’ stance on Northern Gateway worked perfectly.

It allowed them to sit on the sidelines for a while, then send in former attorney general Geoff Plant and a team of other lawyers for a few key plays.

Then they enjoyed watching NDP Leader Adrian Dix boot the Kinder Morgan situation.

And now they have emerged as a brand-new government that’s open for business when it comes to pipelines, while at the same time utterly devoted to protecting northern wilderness from the prospect of a pipeline catastrophe.

B.C.’s final argument to the federal panel reviewing the project continues the minuet. Plant and his team eviscerate the Northern Gateway proposal in remarkably tough language.

But at the same time, Environment Minister Terry Lake stresses that is not a rejection of oil pipelines.

“ ‘Trust me’ is not good enough,” the B.C. submission states, summing up how preliminary and sketchy Northern Gateway’s contingency plans are.

It cites Enbridge’s record of 11 sizable spills over the past 10 years and dwells at great length on the infamous million-gallon Kalamazoo spill just three years ago. A U.S. investigation lambasted the company for its staggering incompetence in continuing to send surges of heavy oil through the line while all the spill alarms were going off.

Clean-up costs are in the $700 million range so far.

And that was in an easily accessible part of the line. B.C.’s brief prompts readers to imagine the same thing happening in the rugged upper Kitimat Valley, inaccessible by road, where they get nine metres of snow in the winter.

The company pledged to develop prompt response plans for any spill. But B.C.’s argument notes “that doing nothing is a possible response.” One company expert said “spill response” could include “monitoring and allowing natural attenuation to occur.”

Overall, B.C. says on spill response the company is proposing “a plan for developing plans.”

It is aiming for a six- to 12-hour response time for any spill. But B.C. notes that is only for arriving on site. Actually starting work on a spill could take a number of days.

“It is not clear what Northern Gateway means by ‘response,’ when doing nothing is a possible response, and when spill response may consist of monitoring and allowing natural attenuation to occur,” said B.C.’s somewhat sardonic argument. “If doing nothing or monitoring constitute responses, it goes without saying that Northern Gateway could ‘respond’ to each spill.”

B.C. even questions the cost-benefit of the project. It’s based on a $2-a-barrel “Asian uplift.” But the full costs haven’t been figured, says B.C. And while potential government revenues have been estimated, no costs to government are included.

There was another long analysis earlier that hits the same notes. It was written and signed by every member of the B.C. NDP caucus.

So the B.C. Liberals shuffled the file for a while, then adopted the same stance as their opponents and still maintain they’re not opposed to oil pipelines.

But it’s not to be laughed at. It’s a peculiar form of genius.

lleyne@timescolonist.com