Razor-Thin British Columbia Vote Gives Greens Sway on Energy

British Columbia’s ruling Liberal Party was reduced to a minority government in a fiercely contested provincial election, setting up a vote recount and raising the possibility the Green Party will hold sway over multi-billion dollar energy projects.

Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals, in power since 2001, are poised to form the first minority government in the Canadian province in 65 years. The Liberals won in 43 of 87 districts, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party took 41 — putting both short of a majority, according to preliminary results from Elections B.C. The Green Party grabbed a record three districts in what its leader described as North America’s first elected green caucus. Recounts will take at least two weeks and could shift the totals.

“It is my intention to continue to lead British Columbia’s government,” Clark, 51, told supporters in downtown Vancouver. As the incumbent, Clark has the first shot at heading a minority government — a task made easier because she won the most seats and the popular vote — but acknowledged she would need to work with other parties to get things done. “Tonight is the beginning of something very different.”

In the birthplace of Greenpeace, Clark faced down environmental opposition to back Kinder Morgan Inc.’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion and Petroliam Nasional Bhd’s proposed $27 billion liquefied natural gas-export project in order to get Canadian energy exports to Asian markets. Both the oil and natural gas projects are already approved by the B.C. and federal governments.

If Clark requires the support of the Greens to govern the Pacific Coast province, she’ll be dealing with a party staunchly opposed to both projects — raising new questions about their fate as court challenges remain another potential barrier. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, 55, a Cambridge-trained climate scientist turned politician, has said Kinder Morgan’s pipeline has “no place on our coast” and has dismissed the Liberals’ efforts to develop an LNG industry as “nonsense” and a “colossal failure.”

Judicial Recount

“At this point in time, a Liberal minority creates an air of uncertainty for several major energy infrastructure projects,” including oil, LNG and the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam, Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Andrew Kuske wrote in a report Wednesday. “In light of often diametrically opposed positions on these projects, the Liberals look to be in a challenged position versus the Green Party’s three seats.”

The coal industry also faces increasing risk. Clark vowed if re-elected to ban thermal coal exports from B.C. in retaliation for U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber — a move Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’s considering. Her move targets U.S. miners, such as Cloud Peak Energy Inc. which ships out of Vancouver’s Westshore Terminals Investment Corp., because environmental opposition along the U.S. West Coast has blocked export terminals there. Weaver welcomed that pledge, calling it long overdue.

Clark invoked U.S. uncertainty in arguing for unity. “In the face of rising protectionism in the United States, economic uncertainty around the world, now more than ever B.C. needs strong leadership,” she said. “I will work with the other parties to do what needs to be done to preserve, protect and create jobs for British Columbians.”

With razor-thin margins in some districts, a tally of absentee votes and ballot recounts starting May 22 could still determine the final winner. For example, the NDP candidate won one district by only nine votes. If recounts boost the Liberal tally by just one district, Clark will hold a majority in the legislature in Victoria. She was optimistic ahead of recounts. “I am confident that they will strengthen our margin of victory,” Clark said.

‘Rich Friends’

A Liberal victory was broadly seen as more friendly for business. Under the watch of Clark, a former radio host who’s governed for six years, B.C. has led Canada in job creation and posted a budget surplus for five consecutive years.

The results mark new territory for the Green Party, which has never had more than a single member elected to a Canadian legislature. In B.C., the party got a campaign bus for the first time in this election.

Weaver, in a speech to a cheering crowd south of Vancouver, pledged to work so “that the benefits of a strong economy should flow to all of us, not just a privileged few.” That echoes criticism by NDP leader John Horgan, 57, a former pulp mill worker, who during the campaign slammed Clark for governing for her “rich friends and donors.”

Similar Ideas

During the campaign, Weaver refused to say which party he would support in a potential minority government. One thing he said he wouldn’t compromise on was a ban on corporate and union contributions to political parties. In a country where most provinces limit donations to a few thousand dollars per donor, B.C. has been dubbed the “Wild West” of Canadian fundraising, and both the Liberals and NDP stirred controversy this election after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.

“British Columbians voted today to get big money out of politics,” the NDP’s Horgan said after results began rolling in. At last count, Clark had 40.8 percent of the vote, compared with 39.9 percent for the NDP and 16.8 percent for the Greens. Although it’s common in Canada’s multi-party system to form a majority government with only a minority of the popular vote, Horgan sought to align himself with the Greens by declaring “a majority of British Columbians today voted for a new government.”

Outside British Columbia, minority governments are not uncommon in Canada, with ruling federal and provincial parties often relying on opposition lawmakers’ support case-by-case to pass bills and budgets without creating formal coalitions.

The Green Party and NDP share similar ideas in some areas — such as opposition to Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, raising carbon taxes, and taxing housing speculators. But Weaver has also hinted that on economic issues his party sides with the Liberals.

“On the economic plan, I think we’re closer to the Liberals than the NDP,” he told Global TV.

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