OTTAWA/VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Its decision to approve development of the controversial Northern Gateway oil pipeline could cost Canada's governing Conservatives critical support in British Columbia, where they will need a strong showing in the 2015 election to secure another majority in Parliament.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have lots to lose in the Pacific Coast province, where they have 21 of its 36 seats in the House of Commons. As well as the seats they hold, they are banking on picking up some of six new seats, in Vancouver's suburbs and elsewhere, that British Columbia will get for next year's election.
"The government loses unless it can win in places like that," Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker said.
The C$7.9 billion ($7.2 billion) pipeline project would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific Coast, where it would be shipped to Asian markets. The project is backed by business groups but opposed by environmentalists, many native communities and opposition parties.
While the Conservatives won many of their seats in British Columbia by strong margins, their support has dropped substantially from the 2011 election, increasing their vulnerability.
Ekos pollster Frank Graves said he guessed that a significant fraction of British Columbians who voted Conservative in 2011 would be unhappy with the Northern Gateway decision.
"In British Columbia, I can't imagine this wouldn't be damaging to the Conservatives given the strength of opposition there," he said.
A new online poll issued by Angus Reid on Wednesday found British Columbian public opinion more opposed to the Enbridge Inc (ENB.TO) pipeline than in favor: 40 percent versus 38 percent, with the rest undecided. Opposition to the project was twice as strong in British Columbia as in neighboring Alberta.
That said, Angus Reid's Shachi Kurl said she was surprised the survey did not show more resistance to the project in British Columbia.
Usually a vocal proponent of energy projects, the Conservative government put out its decision on Northern Gateway quietly, via a news release, late Tuesday afternoon. No ministers spoke to the cameras or answered questions.
Ipsos Reid's Bricker noted the decision may have the advantage for the Conservatives of shifting debate away from recent embarrassments that have tarnished them, a Senate expenses scandal, for instance. He said they could also use the issue to reinforce the message that they are the party putting the highest priority on economic growth.
"It actually in some ways works for the Conservatives because it helps to organize their vote along something that looks a bit more like an economic or industrial position," he said.
The two main opposition parties, the New Democrats and Liberals, declared on Tuesday they would set aside the decision and somehow ensure the pipeline does not move forward. It was not clear exactly how they would do this.
The government's pipeline decision endorsed last December's recommendation by the regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB), which said the project should go ahead as long as 209 conditions are fulfilled.
Paul Duchesne, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said that if the NEB, as an independent body, were to find that all conditions for an operating permit were being met, "the government has no authority to order the NEB to revoke a permit".
University of British Columbia political scientist Richard Johnston said that while there could be some fallout for the Conservatives in the northern part of the province, where the potential environmental and social impact of the pipeline could outweigh the potential for jobs, the real battleground would be in the Vancouver area.
"The big numbers electorally are not in the north, they’re in the lower mainland, including Vancouver’s suburbs," Johnston said. "The Conservatives have a significant fraction of the parliamentary coalition at risk potentially."
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway