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British Columbia power struggle raises specter of more permitting scrutiny

Uncertainty looms over resource policy in British Columbia amid a post-election power struggle.

The incumbent Liberals look set to lose power after the provincial New Democratic and Green parties agreed May 30 to try to form government with a slim majority and pursue policies that promise greater scrutiny of the resource sector.

The Liberals won the most seats in a May 9 election, with 43, but the New Democratic Party, or NDP, came close with 41 seats and the Greens secured three. Together that means the NDP and Greens have a one seat advantage over the Liberals.

In power, the NDP and Greens plan to cast a critical eye over resource policy in the province.

The two parties outlined an agreement May 30 in which, among other things, they said they would oppose an expansion of Kinder Morgan Inc.'s Trans Mountain pipeline and that they would reshape provincial environmental assessment.

They said they would revitalize the regulatory process and redress what they see as shortcomings in its independence "so that British Columbians' faith in resource development can be restored."

The NDP and Green Party did not respond to requests for comment.

It's a policy approach that closely mirrors the language of an ongoing review of federal environmental assessment in Canada.

Industry spokesperson Bryan Cox, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, avoided criticism of the policies, taking a wait-and-see approach instead.

"We need to see how the dialogue progresses and exactly how the structure will look," he said. Cox stressed that for his members regulatory certainty and global competitiveness were critical.

He would not say if members of his association had voiced fears over the possible regulatory changes or if he opposed the policy positions, which could mean more scrutiny and longer timelines for resource projects.

Other close observers of the mining sector in British Columbia were more cutting of the potential NDP-lead government.

"I think you would find a strong generational divide," said Eric Coffin, of Hard Rock Advisors. "People my age and older that were around for the last couple of NDP governments, guys in the mining sector that is, are probably freaking out right now."

For them, the NDP may mean a tougher stance on mining in British Columbia.

Still, Coffin said some people in mining he has spoken to noted that not all NDP governments were created equal in British Columbia. The party was also a strong supporter in permitting mines, he said. Further, he wondered if the importance of promoting job growth, a central plank of the NDP platform, would come to bear.

"The NDP leader doesn't strike me as the guy that's going to get in the way of job creation," Coffin said.

Of course, the key questions now in British Columbia politics is whether the NDP and Greens will succeed in coming to power and how long they might hold on to it.

Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley, notes that the situation is unprecedented in Canadian political history. Never before has a Canadian province seen two parties try to form government with the slimmest of possible majorities.

It raises some critical questions.

To get to power, the NDP and Greens will have to officially defeat the Liberal government in a vote of no confidence.

That's because Christy Clark, the Liberal leader and current Premier, has yet to concede defeat, no doubt with an eye to the slim majority of the NDP and Greens. She'll govern until that defeat comes.

One issue will be how the parties choose a speaker of the Legislative Assembly. With one vote in the balance, it's a thorny issue, for the speaker doesn't cast a vote unless it is needed to break a tie. And more importantly, by convention speakers vote in favor of the government, Telford said. So if the speaker's colors were NDP, even on a confidence vote they would theoretically be expected to vote in favor of the Liberal government, which is still in power.

It's not clear at this point what will result in the jockeying over speaker once the legislature in British Columbia returns.

Then, of course, there is the Lieutenant Governor's role. When a government is defeated in British Columbia it is officially up to the Lieutenant Governor to decide if an alternative political formation, in this case the NDP and Greens, can form a stable government or if holding another election is more suitable.

Telford suspects Judith Guichon, British Columbia's Lieutenant Governor, will give the NDP and Greens a shot. "But we can never be absolutely sure how she'll decide," he noted.

Then the question will be how long an NDP and Green government can survive.

The NDP and Greens, if they form government, will be susceptible to defeat if all of their representatives don't make it to subsequent confidence votes.

"All minorities are tenuous at best," Telford said. But "with a razor thin working majority it's going to be very difficult."