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An Environmental Group Is Trying to Have B.C. Pipelines Voted on Through Referendums

With multiple oil sands pipelines worth several billion dollars in development in BC right now, a local environmental group is trying to launch a referendum that would allow its citizens to have approval on their construction. They're organizing...
Jimmy Thomson
Victoria, CA
April 9, 2014, 6:16pm

The wood-lagging that protects the pipeline from damage, popular with Kinder Morgan, one of the pipeline giants with proposed projects set to launch in BC. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
With two major oil sands pipeline projects being proposed for B.C., one environmental group wants British Columbians to have the chance to have their say. The Dogwood Initiative, based in Victoria, is in the process of launching a citizen’s initiative similar to the HST vote in 2011. “We can introduce a bill that would deny the support of the B.C. government for any project that would result in an increase in crude oil tankers off our coast,” says Kai Nagata, who recently joined Dogwood Initiative in order to make the citizen’s initiative happen.

If the group is successful, it could push the government to deny the dozens of permits required to connect electricity or do other basic things that make pipelines happen. But a 2013 parliamentary report said that if a province “fashioned legislation… [that] was a disguised attempt to interfere with an interprovincial pipeline, the provincial law would not be valid.”

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Nagata agrees that the federal government technically has a constitutional override switch for provincial laws in the form of the “power of disallowance” clause. But it hasn’t been used since 1943, and he says that invoking a wartime measure to big-foot the province would be a political disaster.

Some groups think it might not even make it that far. The bar is high: for this to happen, 10 percent of the voters in every one of B.C.’s 85 ridings have to sign a petition asking for the referendum first within 90 days of launching the petition. That’s about 317,000 people, and the Dogwood Initiative and its allies currently have teams in less than half of the ridings. For reference, last year’s SensibleBC campaign to legalize marijuana in the province failed—gathering only two-thirds of the required signatures. If BC can’t organize around legalizing its favourite herbal remedy, what chance does a controversial issue like banning tankers have?

“The initiative process is set up to fail,” says Ben West of the Vancouver-based ForestEthics Advocacy.

Meanwhile other environmental groups in the province, normally united on anti-pipeline campaigns, are worried that if the referendum fails there will be nothing standing in the way of the pipelines—and the spike in tanker traffic that comes with them. Kinder Morgan and Enbridge will be able to say that the people have spoken, and that clearly they want the pipelines.

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But Andrew Weaver, MLA for the Green Party, is confident that that wouldn’t happen: “I frankly think it would succeed,” he says. “I’m sure I could get the ten percent in a weekend just canvassing by myself in Victoria.”

There are two projects currently being proposed. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would end in Kitimat, where it would fill 18 supertankers a month. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain project, “the only pipeline system in North America that transports both crude oil and refined products to the west coast,” would expand its current capacity by adding another pipeline, which would increase tanker traffic through Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet by about 30 ships every month.

“Kinder Morgan has at this point angered fewer people,” says Nagata. “People are just less aware that the project even exists.”

Enbridge and Kinder Morgan declined to comment for this article.

There are a few things that need to happen before Nagata and his teams throughout the province launch the citizen’s initiative. First, the Northern Gateway would need to be approved by the federal cabinet—that decision is expected before June 19. Nagata and Weaver both think that the whole thing might end there, with the Conservatives afraid of putting their 22 B.C. seats in jeopardy. Given the high disapproval rating the Northern Gateway pipeline is stuck with, if the Conservative MPs are to intervene at this stage, they might risk losing their jobs in 2015.

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“It’s just such a political albatross to hang around those MPs,” says Nagata.

Weaver agrees. “It would be the death knell for every Conservative seat in BC,” he says.

Even if the federal cabinet approves Northern Gateway, Nagata says he won’t try for a referendum “unless we know we can win.”

But even if they succeed in forcing a referendum, the task at hand is very difficult; rather than a simple majority, more than 50 percent of voters in two thirds of electoral districts must also vote in favour of the bill. At that point, the bill is introduced in the legislature, where it can still be changed or voted down.

Disclosure: the author volunteered with the Dogwood Initiative in 2011 as a canvasser. @j_ws_t