The shell game

The idea of a shell game is simple enough.  Three small shells or cups glide around a surface, hiding one small object.  Wikipedia notes that this game is an elaborate, if simple, confidence trick, designed to perpetrate a fraud.

Stephen Harper’s latest moves in the Enbridge project debate have been a lot like that shell game.  He has whizzed the cups around the table.  In the blur of moves, some may believe he has changed his position.  

Analyzing the moves in sequence helps focus on the most likely of explanations.  This latest “wait for the science” gambit is all about defusing the pipeline issue before and during the spring BC provincial election.

Things have been shaken up on this issue by two key events. The first, July 10, 2012, was the  release of the findings of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Accident Report on the Kalamazoo, Michigan Enbridge spill.  The second was Premier Christy Clark’s announcement, a toughening stand unveiled from July 16-21, that she could not be counted on to support the project, unless Alberta and the federal government agreed to concessions. And in this blur of news, Stephen Harper seemed to have a change of heart, claiming that he had always said the decision would rest on the findings of the Joint Review Panel.

Of course, if Stephen Harper was thinking about the evidence, the logical time to have spoken up about pipeline safety was immediately following the July 10 condemnation of Enbridge by US officials.  Is there any evidence that the US NTSB 150 page report lambasting Enbridge for incompetence and negligence had any impact on the PM? 

The PMO message machine did ensure a strong statement was made in response to the accident report.  On July 19, Environment Minister Peter Kent leapt to the defence of Enbridge. In a Globe and Mail story headlined “Ottawa maintains support for Enbridge and Northern Gateway,” Peter Kent said, “Pipelines are still, by far, the safest way to transport petrochemicals in any form.”  According to the news report, Peter Kent also said he had not read the U.S. NTSB report.  His defence of Enbridge? 

“It is an older pipeline; it is a different set of geographic and technological realities from some of the new major projects being proposed,” he said.

Pity poor Peter Kent; told by the Boss to peddle an impossible sales pitch.  Is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to remain perpetually new? A never-get-old pipeline? Just the next week, July 27, Enbridge had a new leak in relatively new, 1998 vintage, pipeline in Wisconsin.

In the time between Peter Kent’s defence of Enbridge’s 2010 Michigan spill and the new one in Wisconsin, Christy Clark made her first public criticism of Enbridge.

On August 1, on CKNW and the Bill Good Show, Heritage Minister James Moore became the first member of the Harper cabinet to criticize Enbridge.  Moore chose to criticize Enbridge while praising Kinder-Morgan’s pipeline expansion plans.

Chronologically, the next development was within days. Clearly, prior to Moore’s August 1 radio comments, the wheels were in motion for the letter from Peter Kent and the head of the NEB to the Joint Review Panel.  The letter, dispatched on Friday August 3, told the JRP that their report would be due on December 31, 2013. Frankly, to that point, all indications pointed to forcing the completion of the review far sooner than December 2013. 

On Tuesday, August 7, (the first business day following the Kent deadline letter), Stephen Harper met with Christy Clark and then recast the issue, claiming he was going to allow science to decide whether the pipeline would be approved:

And as I’ve said repeatedly, the government does not pick and choose particular projects. The government obviously wants to see British Columbia’s export trade continue to grow and diversify; that’s important. But projects have to be evaluated on their own merits.” (emphasis added)

The reality is that the Prime Minister had never said anything remotely like this before.  With specific reference to Enbridge, he has “repeatedly” used the term “national interest” to describe the importance of the project.  Speaking in China in February, Harper made his clearest commitments to ensuring the Northern Gateway project is built. In a Reuters story, “Canada PM vows to ensure key oil pipeline is built,” Harper said, “our government is committed to ensuring that Canada has the infrastructure necessary to move our energy resources to those diversified markets.”

Is he really backing away from unequivocal support?  

Rather than a change in his position, the new con game is about trying to reduce the opposition to the pipeline during the BC election.  That’s why the deadline is now December 2013. My bet is that trying to reduce the “with us or against us” rhetoric was the main topic of conversation when Clark and Harper met. The more people believe it is only a hypothetical threat, the more the BC election may not require BC political leaders to harden their opposition to federal railroading of a risky super tanker and pipeline scheme.

In this con game, my money is still on the reality that Stephen Harper is more determined to export bitumen to China than to any other policy objective.