B.C. pressure mounts to end pipeline silence

In this Jan. 11, 2012 photo, a worker uses a small boat to move logs on the Douglas Channel at dusk in Kitamaat, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VICTORIA - B.C.'s environment minister acknowledges he's feeling the pressure to take a stand on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, but he says his government is determined to keep quiet until federal environmental reviews are completed.

Environment Minister Terry Lake said Thursday the province's silence on the pipeline decision created a demand for clarity that the government was willing to withstand.

But he added: "We feel the pressure, of course we do, but it's not responsible to take a position before all that evidence is before us and then we can make the best decision in the interests of all British Columbians."

Lake said it's still early in the review process and he is cautious about stating a position.

"I don't feel really rushed to do it," he said. "You feel the political pressure to comment on it, but I think we have to be responsible and get all the information before we take a position."

Environmental groups, First Nations and B.C.'s Opposition New Democrats have come out firmly against the $5.5 billion Enbridge (TSX:ENB) plan to pipe Alberta oil to north coast B.C. and ship the oil to Asia on supertankers.

On the other side, the federal and Alberta governments also haven't been shy about touting the project's potential economic benefits to Canada.

The B.C. government, however, has remained silent and all indications are it will remain so.

The Liberals issued a provincewide renewal invitation from Premier Christy Clark on Thursday, asking for input to develop new ideas and policies in advance of the May 2013 election.

The pipeline wasn't among the topics on the table for discussion.

Clark's invitation highlights education, skills and training, mental health and addiction, public and private wages, open government, the Senate and changing the party name as key areas up for discussion at the party's convention this coming fall.

Aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister Mary Polak, who has been commenting on Liberal party platform development issues, said the Liberals are open to discussing the Northern Gateway pipeline and any other issues with anybody.

"If British Columbians want to raise issues like that, this is an open forum for them to do that," she said.

Earlier this week, Premier Christy Clark said she won't play politics with the pipeline approval process. She said she wants to get more environmental and development facts before her government decides whether or not to commit the province's support.

"I really do think this is a debate about risks and benefits," Clark said. "All development has some impact on the environment and so we need to understand what this impact is, and we need to know what the benefits could possibly be."

Clark said the decision by the NDP to announce opposition to Northern Gateway before the environmental reviews are completed sends a message to investors that they've pre-judged the process.

"That they're going to play politics with it has got to scare a lot of job creators and employers out of the province," she said. "I am just not going to go down that path."

Smithers, B.C. resident Josette Wier sent an open letter to Clark calling on the B.C. Liberals to end their silence on the pipeline project.

Wier's letter said B.C. should declare the province is not prepared to rubber-stamp what she says appears to be a done-deal federally.

"Will British Columbia, under your leadership, continue to remain silent and continue to ignore the consistent public opposition to this project, while federal bullies intent on undermining our sovereignty, move ahead with impunity?" her letter stated.

Wier's letter said Ottawa's recent introduction of environmental legislation proposing to keep environmental reviews of projects to 24 months and give the federal cabinet final project approval rights should force B.C. to conduct its own environmental review of Northern Gateway.

"We contend that a project which has been pre-emptively approved is no longer in accordance with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Act, which directs the appropriate B.C. ministers to make decisions on projects, not simply approve them with recommendations for mitigation," stated the letter.

Wier, reached at her home near Smithers, said she has registered as an intervenor in the federal joint review panel hearings examining the environmental impact of Northern Gateway. She said she provided 22 pages of evidence to the panel in December.

She said her letter to Clark is signed by individual citizens of northern B.C. who are members of independent local groups opposed to the project, including Douglas Channel Watch and Fort St. James Sustainability Group.

"We're coming from local caring and local knowledge and we're seeing the province of British Columbia, Christy Clark, doing absolutely nothing," Wier said.