How the Dogwood Initiative plans to fight Kinder Morgan

Communications director Kai Nagata says they want a province-wide referendum

May 31, 2016

By Max Fawcett

On May 19, the National Energy Board gave its recommendation—with 157 conditions, mind you—in support of Kinder Morgan’s plan to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline. If approved by the federal government, the pipeline would connect oil sands reserves in Alberta with global export markets by way of Burnaby, and expand the line’s capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to at least 890,000 barrels per day. Not surprisingly, mayors Gregor Robertson and Derek Corrigan lambasted the decision, with Vancouver’s mayor describing the entire NEB hearing process as “a sham.”

But while the next move belongs to the federal government, which has promised a decision by the end of 2016, a Vancouver-based advocacy group isn’t waiting around for that to happen. Instead, they’re aiming to get an HST-style referendum on the pipeline onto the public agenda. Kai Nagata, the Dogwood Initiative’s communications director, told us about how his group plans to take the fight to Kinder Morgan—and maybe make life difficult for this province’s politicians in the process.

Were you at all surprised by this decision?

No. The NEB has become kind of ceremonial at this point, since the changes made by the previous government that vested approval power in the cabinet. Even if it was a no, or a ‘go back and do more homework,’ the feds could still override that. We had the minister in the House this week come within an inch of promising an approval by December, and so this new advisory panel (that has no legal powers) that has been struck to hear from citizens along the route will finish its work on the deadline, and we are assured by the minister that cabinet will render its decision in December. I think that’s when things will get really interesting.

Is this new panel a genuine effort at consultation or just a consensus-farming exercise?

Well, those are your words, but yeah, I think your analysis is fair. The exercise that we were told about by the minister this week is designed to invest the final decision with more credibility than it would have otherwise—an acknowledgement by the Liberals, since the federal election, that the NEB process does not command the confidence of British Columbians. They used stronger words than that on the campaign trail, but basically it undermined this decision today in advance. Now the minister’s hope is that whatever transpires with this appointed panel over the next few months will magically reverse the opinion of the public on the credibility of pipeline reviews in this country.

Was their attempt to rehabilitate the NEB too much of a half-measure to ever have any hope of succeeding?

I’m not sure what they’ve done to rehabilitate the NEB itself. The transitory process that was announced earlier this year is tacked on after the NEB recommendation, so I don’t believe anything has changed substantially at the NEB. There might be a couple of new board members that the Liberals have appointed, but it’s still dominated by Conservative appointees—and that’s mostly industry folks.

One of the conditions in the NEB ruling is that Kinder Morgan has to offset any emissions associated with the construction of the new pipeline. That’s going to be pitched, I think, as a compromise to the concerns that people in the Lower Mainland have expressed about it. But is there anything they could do at this point to reassure British Columbians and Vancouverites that this is a project they should support?

That’s not really what they were created to do, and I don’t think at this point they can do much retroactively as an organization. It’s really in the hands of the politicians at this point, and that’s our concern at Dogwood—there are some decisions that have decades-long consequences and trade-offs that should not be made by people who are operating on a four-year political cycle. And this might be one of them.

We’ve relaunched our LetBCVote website to collect support for an eventual province-wide vote. And I’d submit that even for proponents of projects like this, a plebiscite or a citizens initiative or even a referendum might provide more of a definitive response than the 10-year procedural debate that we’ve seen around oil tanker projects on the B.C. coast. There are questions where I think it’s appropriate, and the government in B.C. has shown a willingness to put these sticky public policy questions to the public. If you want a clear answer, that might be the way to do it.

Dogwood appears to be targeting the provincial government more than the federal government. Is that because an election is coming up on that level, or because the provincial government is better suited to protect the interests of British Columbians?

One of the reasons is that the province’s jurisdiction has been enhanced by the Gitga’at court decision. But we’re a B.C. group. Our supporters are in B.C. We don’t actually work on projects outside of the borders of British Columbia. And it’s the B.C. government that has this unique democratic tool, in the form of the Recall and Initiative Act, that no other province has and that actually provides for some measure of direct democracy. As you know, it was used successfully for the HST. It’s a very high bar to cross, but we feel we’re better prepared than any group has been in B.C. And with another year to prepare, we’ll be in a position to seriously consider this tactic following a provincial decision next spring.

Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that a referendum on the project is held, and that a slim majority—say, 52 percent—vote in favour of it. Would people in the Lower Mainland accept that outcome?

I don’t know. It’s hard to comment on a hypothetical. I used to be a reporter in Quebec, so I know well the folly of trying to talk about hypothetical future referendum outcomes. But the point is that British Columbians need to have a say at some point. The process so far has not offered that. There are other decision makers as well. First Nations obviously have their own rights and decisions to make. If the First Nations affected come to terms with the project under the conditions or mitigation efforts put in place, and they reverse their position and the people of B.C. support the idea, then so be it.

But it would appear that, from all of the legal opinions prepared for those First Nations and the polling that we’ve seen over the last five years around public attitudes towards oil tankers in B.C., that there’s a growing not-cool with the general direction that the federal government is proposing for energy exports on the coast. And those people are deliberately being shut out of the process, because if it was democratic it would be much harder to push through these approvals.

I think the beauty of the initiative process is that it allows people to take the initiative as citizens, without waiting for politicians to come and ask what they think. We can actually deliver a stack of a few hundred thousand petition signatures from citizens in B.C. who know exactly where they stand.

Could you see this becoming a ballot issue in the next provincial election?

Absolutely. The timing is interesting for the premier, because she will face re-election in May and the feds are set to make a decision in December. At some point, probably after the Christmas holidays, this is going to end up back in the B.C. government’s lap, and they’re going to have to decide whether they stay with their tough talk on their five conditions. Any reasonable assessment of the progress so far on meeting those conditions would conclude that there’s a lot of work still to be done. If they were to just drop their opposition and override the position of the civil servants who drafted the government’s submission to the NEB process and just say ‘yes, we have decided for political reasons to now support this thing,’ I think it would be seen as a reversal by a large number of British Columbians.

The response that we’re anticipating from the opposition would suggest that there’s a clear differentiator between the two positions that we would expect to see highlighted in the election. The politically smart move would be to find a way to either make that decision after the election—in other words, punt it—or put it on the ballot and let the people render a decision.

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