VANCOUVER – The British Columbia New Democrat platform promises to use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from going ahead.
But what are those tools? NDP Leader John Horgan isn’t saying.
“I’m going to be discussing those with the prime minister the day after the election,” he said on a campaign stop this week in Kamloops.
Standing on the bank of the South Thompson River, Horgan wasn’t far from where former NDP leader Adrian Dix proclaimed his opposition to Trans Mountain in 2013. Some pundits have declared the moment to be Dix’s fatal mistake in the election that saw Liberal Leader Christy Clark elected premier.
But Horgan faces entirely different circumstances ahead of Tuesday’s election. The federal government has already approved the $7.4-billion project, which would triple the bitumen-carrying capacity of the existing line from the Edmonton area to Burnaby, B.C. So despite his insistence he will fight the pipeline, some observers question whether it’s within his power.
“It’s natural to wonder whether this isn’t just a rhetorical posture,” said Richard Johnston, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.
Despite its inclusion in the NDP platform, Trans Mountain hasn’t drawn much attention during B.C.’s four-week campaign. When asked about it in Kamloops, Horgan was quick to change the subject, saying there’s a range of issues he wants to raise with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Asked again to clarify what tools he had to stop the project, Horgan pointed out that the Squamish Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in southwest B.C. have filed legal challenges against the federal government.
“There’s a whole host of other legal remedies available to us and we’ll be laying that out,” he said.
But while many voters in the Lower Mainland may oppose the project, workers and First Nations in rural B.C. tend to support it and the jobs it would bring. Speaking in North Vancouver on Wednesday, Horgan said he wasn’t worried that his position would lose him votes in the Interior.
“Not at all. I have a plan to create 96,000 construction jobs in British Columbia,” he said, referring to the NDP promise to create these jobs through building schools, hospitals, roads, housing and public transit.
If Horgan is elected on Tuesday, it will put Alberta and B.C. in the unprecedented position of having neighbouring NDP governments that fundamentally disagree on a major multibillion dollar project.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley declined to endorse Horgan ahead of the B.C. election and warned her staff not to campaign for him because of his opposition to the pipeline, which is seen as crucial to the revitalization of Alberta’s oilsands and to Notley’s political future.
Horgan downplayed the rift when asked about it in Merritt this week.
“Rachel and I had dinner last fall and agreed to disagree. We agree on so many other issues. But on this fundamental question for the people of Alberta, she has her responsibilities as the leader of a government.
“I have my responsibilities and I believe a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic in our pristine marine environment is a risk too great.”
Johnston said Horgan could attempt to leverage B.C.’s co-operation on federal initiatives, such as the Canada Pension Plan or the carbon tax, to sway Trudeau’s government on Trans Mountain. But that would be a high-stakes game, risking not only relationships with the federal government but with Alberta and other provinces.
“That’s pretty toxic politics,” he said.
Horgan could revoke B.C.’s environmental permit for the project, but interprovincial pipelines fall under federal jurisdiction so the Canadian government’s permit is paramount, said Johnston.
He said it doesn’t seem that Trans Mountain is as much of a ballot box issue as it was in 2013. But the NDP appears focused on swing ridings in the Lower Mainland and must appeal to the environmental faction of its party while fending off challenges from the Greens, he said.
Johnston said he’s unsure if Horgan’s stand will clash with Clark’s emphasis on jobs in the same way that it did when Dix was running for the job.
“Because … so what if John Horgan opposes it? The deal is done.”
— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.