How not to run a province – National Post Editorial (August 7, 2012)

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If Christy Clark, premier of British Columbia, hoped that picking a fight with Alberta would help improve her dismal standing in the polls, the latest numbers are bound to be disappointing.

The new poll, by Forum Research, shows that the B.C. NDP would win 79 of the 85 seats in the provincial legislature if an election were held today. Ms. Clark’s Liberals, who rank barely ahead of the moribund provincial Conservative party, would be reduced to four seats.

Such bleak figures must be particularly galling to Ms. Clark given that another recent poll shows almost 60% of voters agree with her opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is at the heart of the dispute with Alberta. The survey by Angus Reid found that 35% of respondents were dead set against the pipeline under any conditions, while 24% could be swayed – i.e. bought off – if Ms. Clark succeeded in extorting billions of dollars from Alberta in exchange for dropping her opposition.

It appears that B.C. voters are just fed up with the Liberals, who have been in power for more than a decade, and aren’t going to change their minds in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. But it might also offer a lesson to premiers in general, that voters aren’t impressed when their provincial leaders go and pick a chest-puffing fight with another province just because they can.

Ms. Clark’s demands on Alberta have been denounced on a number of fronts as a transparent effort to win votes by raiding Alberta’s oil-swollen treasury. In order to get oil sands crude from Alberta to a Pacific port, where it can be shipped off to Asian buyers, the pipeline must pass through B.C. Ms. Clark says that’s not going to happen unless Alberta premier Alison Redford gives B.C. its “fair share” of the benefits, which she hasn’t defined but clearly means a big cut of the profits. Ms. Clark argues this is necessary to protect British Columbia’s environment from pipeline spills or oil tanker disasters – legitimate concerns. But rather than insist on guarantees that her province would be spared the bill for clean up and recovery in the aftermath of a hypothetical disaster, Ms. Clark is demanding a steady cashflow, over and above what it would already get, even if there was never an issue with the pipeline or the tankers it would supply. All in the name of mitigating risk.

There are pipelines all over Canada, transporting gas and oil to various markets, and none has previously been held up for such obvious ransom. A recent report by the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimated Alberta would earn $550-billion in taxes from three proposed pipelines over the next 25 years, while B.C. would get only $3-billion or so.

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