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Mike Smyth: B.C.’s pipeline showdown begins

When Environment Minister George Heyman announced the NDP’s new plan to fight Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, he was asked about all those workers who would be out of a job if the project is stopped.

The Alberta-to-B.C. oil pipeline — scheduled to start construction in just a few weeks — was supposed to employ 15,000 construction workers.

“This government has many plans for capital infrastructure, plans that we will proceed with over the coming months and years,” Heyman said.

In other words, those unemployed pipeline workers could get a job building a new Pattullo Bridge or rapid-transit lines, both promised by the NDP government.

But those would be public-sector projects. And you can bet the New Democrats will insist on “project labour agreements” that favour unionized workers.

Where does that leave massive private-sector investments like the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline?

According to Liberal Leader Rich Coleman, big private-sector investments could dry up in British Columbia, given the early signals coming from the NDP.

“They are very quickly sending an international message that B.C. is not a good place to invest,” Coleman said.

Coleman said he recently had a meeting with a “senior vice-president of a Canadian chartered bank” who told him an investment chill has already fallen over the province.

“He said, ‘Money is sitting on the sidelines right now when it comes to B.C. because of this uncertainty — that you can’t get a major project done in this province,’” Coleman said.

In addition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, Coleman pointed to the $8.8-billion Site C dam (under review and threatened with cancellation by the new government), the $3.5-billion Massey Bridge (also threatened with cancellation) and the $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project.

The LNG megaproject was recently cancelled by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, which blamed market conditions for the failure, not the new NDP government.

But Coleman is quick to point out the NDP opposed the LNG project and threatened to review and regulate its operations and jack up taxes on it.

“The word is out to the world,” Coleman said.

“Money moves around the world to where there are business opportunities — opportunities that create jobs. But investors are looking for opportunities that are stable, so they can have confidence they can actually get their projects done.”

The New Democrats, of course, fiercely deny any anti-business bias and insist they’re simply standing up for B.C.’s interests.

In the case of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, Heyman said a catastrophic accident would actually destroy business in B.C., not help it.

“There are thousands of jobs in the marine-harvest industries, as well as in the tourism industry in coastal B.C., the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, that are threatened by an oil spill,” Heyman said.

“Our job is to defend B.C.’s economic interests.”

The government announced it will seek intervener status in ongoing court cases against the pipeline and insisted Kinder Morgan is not allowed to begin construction on public land in B.C.

Heyman and Attorney General David Eby also said the government is legally required to consult First Nations about the pipeline.

Most significantly, Eby said the government will adopt the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as it moves ahead.

That might send the biggest anti-investment chill of all, since the UN declaration says: “States shall consult Indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free and informed consent before the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.”

There’s a debate among experts about whether the UN declaration gives First Nations a direct veto over projects, or whether it would simply compel the government to “consult” with them.

Either way, the former chief of the Haisla First Nation thinks the requirement will stifle economic development that would lift First Nations out of poverty.

“They’re using First Nations as a tool to stop projects,” said Ellis Ross, the newly elected Liberal MLA for Skeena.

“You’re not going to get 100-per-cent consensus among First Nations on any project. And you’re not going to get projects done if one First Nation has the power of veto on a project.”

As the New Democrats move ahead with new rounds of talks with First Nations, Ross worries cancelled projects will entrench poverty and unemployment in First Nations communities.

“I’m a First Nations person and an ex-First Nations leader. But really I’m a British Columbian, too,” Ross said.

“I enjoy the health services, the highways, the educational services and I know those services don’t come without a price tag. You’re going to have to look to natural resources to pay for it.”

As it stands, the NDP’s defiant stand over the Kinder Morgan pipeline signals the start of a battle royal among the company, British Columbia, Alberta, the federal government, municipalities and First Nations.

It could take years. And cost a fortune.

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