OTTAWA â€” Prime Minister Stephen Harper says science â€” not politics â€” will ultimately determine whether the Northern Gateway pipeline proceeds, and he is refusing to get into an argument with British Columbia about how to share â€œhypothetical revenuesâ€� from the project.
Harper also maintains itâ€™s â€œin the vital interestâ€� of British Columbia and Canada to diversify export markets with infrastructure projects that can help get Canadian resources to Asia.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has set five economic and environmental conditions that must be met â€” including B.C. receiving its â€œfair shareâ€� of economic benefits from Ottawa and Alberta â€” before her government will support the $5.5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
Speaking Tuesday on the issue for the first time since B.C. outlined its demands, Harper said the project is being independently assessed by the National Energy Board joint review panel and that his government â€œdoes not pick and choose particular projects.â€�
Yet, the Conservative government announced in the spring that cabinet, and not the National Energy Board, will now make the final decision on pipeline projects in the â€œnational interestâ€� â€” including the Northern Gateway.
Harper insisted Tuesday that a decision on major projects such as the Northern Gateway will be made independently by scientists examining the â€œeconomic costs and risksâ€� associated with the project.
â€œThe only way that governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically, and not simply on political criteria,â€� Harper told reporters at a news conference in Vancouver.
â€œIâ€™m not going to get into an argument or a discussion about how we divide hypothetical revenues.â€�
Asked about the Gateway project and B.C.â€™s demands, Harper said â€œitâ€™s obviously in the vital interest of Canada and in the vital interest of British Columbiaâ€� to diversify export markets into Asia, although he wouldnâ€™t name a specific project.
â€œThe economic growth we expect to have here in the future is going to be based on commerce with the Asia-Pacific region and we think itâ€™s important that we continue to diversify our exports through this province,â€� he added.
B.C.â€™s conditions, which also include world-class environmental response and co-operation with First Nations, apply as well to Kinder Morganâ€™s proposed $4.1-billion expansion to its 60-year-old Trans Mountain line that would also carry oilsands crude to the West Coast.
Research conducted for the B.C. government says the Northern Gateway pipeline would generate $81 billion in provincial and federal tax revenue over a 30-year period, with B.C. receiving only $6.7 billion â€” or 8.2 per cent. Approximately $36 billion of the revenue would go to the federal government and $32 billion to Alberta, with Saskatchewan receiving the largest portion among the remaining provinces, at nearly $4 billion.
The pipelines, which are unpopular with British Columbians, are producing a political headache for the federal Conservative government.
Harper has repeatedly identified new pipelines, such as the Northern Gateway, as key priorities for his government, and as critical pieces of infrastructure needed to help Canada expand its energy export markets beyond the United States.
The federal Conservative government has set a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for the NEB joint review panel examining the Northern Gateway pipeline to submit its environmental assessment and report on the project.
The 1,172-kilometre Gateway pipeline would transport oilsands crude from northern Alberta to the port of Kitimat, B.C., where the product would be loaded onto supertankers and shipped to Asian markets.
The issue is politically dicey for a Harper government that holds 21 seats in British Columbia and is looking to fend off Tom Mulcairâ€™s NDP, which opposes the Northern Gateway pipeline and has been surging in the polls.
NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian said Tuesday thereâ€™s â€œa huge contradictionâ€� between the prime ministerâ€™s words and his governmentâ€™s actions, noting cabinetâ€™s power to now make decisions on major pipeline projects like the Gateway.
â€œCabinet can override by dictate, can impose it on British Columbians,â€� said Julian, a B.C. member of Parliament. â€œItâ€™s profound disrespect for British Columbians.â€�
Julian said Harper and his ministers are softening their words on the Gateway when speaking in British Columbia, but continue to press hard for the project back in Ottawa.
An Angus Reid poll released last week showed more than half of British Columbians oppose the Northern Gateway, but could be swayed to eventually support it, with opposition also strong against the Kinder Morgan line.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford has already rejected B.C.â€™s demands for a share of her provinceâ€™s royalties or tax revenue from the Northern Gateway project, arguing it would effectively rewrite the rules of Confederation.
At least three senior federal ministers have also spoken out against either the B.C. governmentâ€™s â€œfair shareâ€� ultimatum or Enbridgeâ€™s environmental commitment to the project.