As pipeline politics heat up in this province, a looming environmental disaster in neighbouring Alberta may play a big role in shaping public opinion towards two proposed oil pipelines in this province.
The oil-pipeline spill into the Red Deer River will no doubt further damage Enbridge's arguments in favour of its proposed Northern Gateway project, which would see an oil pipeline run from Alberta to B.C.'s northern coast.
However, it's less certain whether the other proposed pipeline - Kinder Morgan's plan to "twin" its existing pipeline from Edmonton through Burnaby - will suffer a similar backlash.
The Enbridge project has attracted much more headline coverage than the Kinder Morgan project, and it has become a major target of the international environment movement, which is deter-mined to kill the northern pipeline before it gets built.
It's easy to see why the two pipeline projects are getting different reactions from the public. A major difference between the two is that the northern pipeline would be built where there is not a pipeline in place already.
On the other hand, the Kinder Morgan pipeline has been in existence since 1952, when it was built by Trans Mountain. So establishing a second line doesn't really change the landscape, particularly since the new pipeline would largely run through established rights-of-way (although critics insist some homeowners may be negatively affected by it).
The Enbridge pipeline, however, would cross more than 600 rivers and would be located in vast tracts of pristine wilderness that have never experienced industrial development in their eco-systems.
Contrasting the Red Deer oil spill, which fouled kilometers of shoreline and may threaten the drinking water for 100,000 people, to something similar happening on, say, the Skeena River is going to make many people very, very nervous.
Of course, pipeline ruptures are actually rare events. Pipelines criss-cross Alberta, but the number of damaging spills is low. Nevertheless, the images that come from one major spill do enormous public relations damage to the company responsible for maintaining the line.
In this regard, Kinder Morgan has an advantage, since the company touts a strong safety record.
In fact, the bigger problem for Kinder Morgan is not the pipeline itself, but the reason why it wants to double its pipeline capacity in the first place: moving more oil to Burnaby means many more oil tankers will be filling up on the product.
About 70 tankers already make the trip through Burrard Inlet every year. That number will increase to more than 300 once the new pipeline is built, and that has people like Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson firmly opposed to the project.
But while Robertson and federal New Democrat Party MP Kennedy Stewart are leading the charge against the project, the provincial NDP has yet to take a position on it.
While the B.C. NDP is dead set against the Enbridge pipeline - leader Adrian Dix has written an 11-page letter outlining his party's various concerns about it - it has not offered any opinion about the Kinder Morgan proposal.
This may ultimately spell good news for Kinder Morgan. It won't even begin its environmental assessment process until after the next provincial election, which gives it time to make its case to what could be a new government in B.C.
It's important to remember the NDP government of the 1990s was an enthusiastic supporter of increasing access to the natural gas fields of this province.
And Dix (and his likely energy minister, John Horgan) appear to be cognizant of the need for industrial development, as they craft a platform that seeks the support of the business community.
And oil is going to flow out of Alberta one way or another. The Kinder Morgan proposal projects $2.5 billion in spending in B.C. alone, with tax revenue implications for all levels of governments.
So opposing one pipeline while supporting the other may well be a position adopted by an NDP government. We'll see.
In the meantime, those images coming out of Red Deer will no doubt harden opposition to the Enbridge line. Pipeline politics continue to heat up in this province, and the timing of that spill couldn't be worse for a company already in the cross-hairs of a huge campaign to discredit its entire project.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.
© Copyright 2013