When word first broke that a leaky pipeline near the central Alberta town of Sundre had poured an estimated 1000 to 3000 barrels of oil into a tributary of the Red Deer River, Premier Alison Redford was quick to respond. That afternoon, the Premier, flanked by Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen and local Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin, held a media conference near the location of the spill.
Despite the quick response, which is a change from the days when it felt like these types of leaks were publicly ignored by our political leaders, Premier Redford’s media conference cannot change the fact that oil spills and leaking pipelines have already become a regularly reported occurrence in Alberta. The latest leak comes at a crucial time when the Government of Alberta and Enbridge Inc are pushing the construction of a new oil pipeline that would travel through Alberta and British Columbia to the port at Kitimat.
As the Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson has pointed out, the latest leak only confirms the suspicions and fears that some British Columbians have about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline:
B.C. will only agree to the pipeline if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risk. That is an argument the Alberta government has not managed to put forward.
Political support for the project is also in question. B.C. Premier Christy Clark, a vocal supporter of the pipeline, has somewhat moderated her tone as her party’s electoral fortunes continue to slip further in the public opinion polls (the BC Liberals have been trailing the NDP in the polls since September 2011). The BC Conservative Party, led by septuagenarian former Member of Parliament John Cummins, are competing with Premier Clark’s Liberals for second place, and have come out in favour of the pipeline.
Taking advantage of the unease about the environmental impact of the pipeline, BC NDP leader Adrian Dix launched a petition against the construction of the pipeline which respond to legitimate concerns about the navigation of oil-filled supertankers through the narrow Douglas Channel.
In the land of political spin, Enbridge spokesperson Paul Stanway claimed last week that the company had secured the support for the pipeline from 60% of First Nations communities along the proposed corridor. The Coastal First Nations group disputed that number, accusing Enbridge of expanding its corridor by 80 kilometres to boost the number of supporters. The group claimed many of the First Nations listed by Enbridge as supporters are located outside of any area that could be impacted by a potential spill.
Although the next federal election could be nearly three years away, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is capitalizing on the concerns central Canadian and British Columbian voters about the effect of oilsands development on the environment and its effects on traditional manufacturing industries (a la Dutch Disease). Everyone from former Reform Party leader Preston Manning to former Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney have chimed in to criticize Mr. Mulcair.
There is irony in Mr. Mulroney shaming Mr. Mulcair for playing regions against each other, considering that some of Mr. Mulroney’s more unpopular policies led to the divisive regionalization of Canadian politics following the 1993 election.
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s Conservatives have proven numerous times over the past nine years, leveraging social and regional wedge issues can lead to great electoral success. Mr. Mulcair would be foolish not to take a page from Prime Minister Harper’s book. While conservative pundits and politicians denounced Mr. Mulcair’s criticisms, the political strategy, at least in the short-term, does not appear to have hurt NDP chances in voter-rich regions outside the prairie provinces. A recent poll showed the federal NDP in a statistical tie with the governing Ottawa Conservatives.