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Energy is the elephant in the Room for the NDP

WATCH: Premier Christy Clark announced today that the first major contract to build the controversial Site C dam has been awarded. Keith Baldrey has the details.

BC Hydro announced today it has signed its first major contract to build the Site C dam.

Keith Baldrey looks at the potential political headache the project poses for the political party that hopes to defeat the B.C. Liberals in the next election.

Few issues are as challenging for the New Democratic Party than energy-related ones, and proof of that can be seen in two recent moves by the party both here in B.C. and right next door in Alberta.

In Alberta, NDP Premier Rachel Notley just launched an ambitious plan to bring in an economy-wide carbon tax, phase out coal-fired electricity and cap activity in the oil sands at current levels.

Notley’s plan has been hailed as visionary, ground-breaking and a model for other provinces. However, it also tacitly embraces the existence of the oil sands industry, which apparently is why some oil companies there were quick to sign off on her new policy.

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Presumably, the Alberta NDP has its eye on surviving the next election, which may partly explain why it is not turning its back on oil pipelines or the oil industry itself. Introducing a carbon tax in tax-phobic Alberta may be risky, but if the NDP’s political opposition remains fractured and broken that may not matter.

Contrast her government’s energy shift to how its B.C. counterpart is trying to shape its own energy policy. Last week, the B.C. NDP unveiled what it’s calling “Power B.C.”,  which outlines what it sees as priorities in that sector.

So things like emphasizing more renewable resources such as wind and solar power, offering more incentives for energy retrofits, and “maximizing” existing B.C. Hydro dams are at the core of the plan.

It’s hard to argue with much of it — although there are very few details being offered — and one of its underlying theme is  that these measures would help negate the building of the Site C dam.

But this is where things get a lot trickier and fuzzier for the B.C. NDP. In some ways, the Site C dam (and, for that matter, the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline and the practice of fracking for natural gas) are the equivalent of the Alberta oil sands in terms of challenges for the B.C. NDP.

But while Notley may have found a way to stickhandle around the oil sands in her province, the B.C. NDP has yet to do that with Site C, which on paper it opposes.

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Here’s the problem: construction of the dam will be well underway — and billions of tax dollars will have been committed through signed contracts — by the time the next provincial election rolls around in May, 2017.

Party leader John Horgan, in media interviews after he unveiled his energy plan, left the door open to walking away from the project should his party form government, but he also left it open to having construction proceed.

Horgan is, reasonably and prudently, making the point that until he sees how far the project has proceeded and how much money has actually been committed, he can’t very well be expected to state explicitly what he will do 18 months from now.

However, that stance is not going to cut it with the environmental wing of his party. Eventually, the ardent Site-C opponents (and no, Horgan is not in that camp himself) within the NDP are going to smell a rat and will demand a more clear-cut position that kills the dam no matter how many billions of tax dollars may go down the drain.

The environmental wing will also be demanding the party continue to oppose Kinder Morgan no matter what, and to take a strong position against fracking and LNG.

This will eventually put Horgan and the NDP in the kind of energy box that Notley may have found a way out of.

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If he states during an election campaign that he will shut down the Site C dam halfway through construction, B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark will set a speed record in getting to the dam site (wearing her industrial hard hat of course) to point to a giant hole in the ground, and make the obvious comments about billions of tax dollars being poured into it, courtesy of the NDP.

So while Notley may have found a neat way to deal with the elephant that is in her party’s room , Horgan has yet to find a way to deal with the one in his, no matter how much his party prefers to talk about things like wind power.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. You can reach him at keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca.

This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.