Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Anderson's offshore opposition plaguing Campbell

VICTORIA - The BC Liberals may officially be neutral in the coming federal election, but many of them will be rooting for Environment Minister David Anderson to lose his Victoria seat.
Anderson is waging a one-man campaign against offshore oil and gas development in B.C., at least according to Premier Gordon Campbell.
Anderson claims to be open-minded. We just don't know enough to consider lifting the 30-year-old ban on development, he says.
But the provincial Liberals - and a lot of people from all parts of the political spectrum in coastal B.C. - are convinced that Anderson's position is a scam. They believe, with considerable justification, that the career politician is dug in on the issue, and no matter how much information is brought forward he's going to call for more.
Anderson dove into the offshore waters again this week. He sent a memo to all the nominated Liberal candidates advising them that until the "knowledge gaps on the risks involved, the resources at stake, and the economic and social factors that might have a bearing" are filled the ban stays put.
The BC Liberals have been getting increasingly frustrated with Anderson's position. They want the moratorium lifted now, to allow work by 2010.
Partly, they just think he's wrong. The provincial Liberals point to a recent Royal Society of Canada report as the latest in a string of studies that have concluded that with proper controls the moratorium could be safely lifted. And the Liberals note that around the world - from the deep waters off Newfoundland to the shallow banks around Scandinavia - development has gone ahead successfully.
The Liberals are also convinced that no amount of information would change Anderson's mind or remove his obstructionism.
It's a reasonable conclusion, based on his statements and actions. If Anderson is concerned about the "knowledge gaps," it is well within his ability to address them. Instead of sniping at the province, he could commission the studies he believes are needed to determine if offshore development is possible.
The comments from BC Liberals like Energy Minister Richard Neufeld are getting increasingly cranky about Anderson.
Campbell says he's getting much more positive comments from other federal Liberals, including Prime Minister Paul Martin.
But there's no sign of their briefing notes to Liberal candidates offering an alternative to Anderson's negative comments on the possibility of offshore oil and gas development any time soon. They haven't rebuffed Anderson's attempts to downplay the significance of the federal panel now holding hearings on the issue. He's the one speaking for the federal government, and he's saying no.
Offshore oil and gas development is going to be an emotional, controversial issue. And federally and provincially, it involves lots of political risks.
But the evidence, based on independent studies on the B.C. issues and the industry's global track record, increasingly indicates that safe development, under appropriate regulations, is possible.
The potential is enormous. The reserves are estimated at 9.8 billion barrels of oil, a resource worth some $110 billion. That's 10 times the size of the Hibernia field that has brought an offshore boom to the East Coast.
Coastal communities need the help. The coastal forest industry continues to struggle, the fishery has been through a decade of decline and even tourism has failed to recover. Offshore oil is seen as one of the last best hopes for a number of desperate communities.
Campbell is going to get that message again next week, when he heads to the northwest for a joint cabinet meeting with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein in Prince Rupert. The premier's agenda will include some fundraisers and other activities in the region. He's going to hear a lot about the region's economic crisis.
Offshore energy isn't the only answer. And even with federal co-operation, the 2010 timeline is probably unrealistic.
But it does offer huge potential benefits. And as long as Anderson is speaking for Ottawa, any chance of progress seems remote.
Footnote: Opposing any offshore development makes sense politically for the federal Liberals. They have no realistic chance of winning seats in B.C.'s regions, but hope for success in Vancouver and Victoria. But the economic problems - and sense of alienation - in the rest of B.C. will be worsened if they have to live with policies shaped to please people who live in the big cities.

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