Politics vs. business for Harper in energy debate
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds during Question Period in the House of Commons. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Billions of dollars in sought-after Chinese investment and a market-launching energy megaproject are the unlikeliest of headaches for any government when the global economy is still wobbling on its axis.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stopped cheerleading the proposed conduit for his ‘national priority’ to wean Canada off the U.S. as a single-source market for oilsands exports.
And Bloomberg reports he was huddling in a powerful cabinet committee on Wednesday to sort out the national benefits verses the political liabilities of endorsing China’s takeover of oil giant Nexen Inc..
In countries plagued by tepid growth and high unemployment, these economic jolts would be welcomed by happy-face cabinet ministers holding multiple news conferences. Indeed, both were considered signature Harper agenda items only six months ago.
But besieged by provincial, municipal, aboriginal and environmental opposition, the $6-billion Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat finds itself potentially orphaned by its political godfather.
It’s up to the National Energy Board to green or red light the pipeline, Harper insisted repeatedly and with increasing irritation at the media’s pipeline fixation on Tuesday. His government is simply a spectator until the board makes its ruling.
Well, not so fast. The government was given veto power over any NEB ruling in the spring budget. That transferred ultimate authority for the ‘go’ or the ‘no’ to his cabinet.
Watching his shrugged-filled responses Tuesday, you’d almost swear Harper hopes to use the NEB for political cover to kill it instead of merely viewing it as a regulatory speedbump before his government’s ultimate approval.
Perhaps he’s recognized that hitching the key plank of his economic platform to a project bombarded by toxic opposition in B.C. could hurt him in this key electoral battleground.
As Harper has proven time and time again, the only consideration that counts is the ballot box reaction to his government’s actions.
That’s why he’s got an equally complicated decision to make on the $15-billion takeover of Nexen Inc. by China’s CNOOC, which will also require his blessing.
Backed by a history of vetoed takeovers based on political considerations – the sale of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates was rejected because it put the iconic Radarsat2 satellite in foreign hands while BHP’s Potash Corp. takeover was nixed because it put a dozen Conservative seats at risk in Saskatchewan – this is no rubber stamp approval.
Concerns that temporarily devalued Canadian oil companies could put a prized economic asset up for firesale to the Communists again puts Harper’s political interests at odds with his pro-business principles.
All this suggests the Northern Gateway pipeline’s fate is truly in the hands of science and safety experts and not the federal cabinet – which is a good thing - while the prime minister’s open door invitation to Chinese investors might yet find Harper standing in their way like a finicky bouncer.