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Premier can't be involved in oil play

Another day, another multibillion-dollar energy play on the north coast. This one in the form of a refinery proposal for Prince Rupert, which comes with a political wrinkle that Premier Christy Clark tried to smooth over.

Another day, another multibillion-dollar energy play on the north coast.

This one in the form of a refinery proposal for Prince Rupert, which comes with a political wrinkle that Premier Christy Clark tried to smooth over.

Pacific Future Energy burst into public view Tuesday morning, unveiling an executive team that will be pitching a $10-billion refinery idea. The team includes Clark's ex-husband, Mark Marissen, who is billed as executive vice-president of communications and research. Marissen is a political consultant who has worked for a number of clients and is a key federal Liberal contact in B.C. He was previously a strategist for former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

The connection is close enough that Clark consulted with B.C.'s conflict-of-interest commissioner and decided to recuse herself from any provincial dealings on the proposal. A separate refinery concept at Kitimat is being advanced by Victoria newspaper publisher David Black, and Clark will step aside from any dealings on that project as well, and any other refinery ideas that come up.

The couple divorced some years ago, but their former relationship has come up as an issue previously. She recused herself years ago on B.C. Rail matters partly because Marissen was involved with one aspect of that deal. That didn't stop former MLA John van Dongen from filing a complaint with the commissioner's office in 2012. It was found to be "replete with suspicion and innuendo" and dismissed in 2013.

It was revealed in that ruling that Clark and Marissen agreed early in her political career that all of Marissen's clients would be vetted through the commissioner's office to avoid conflicts of interest. That appears to go above and beyond the law, which does not extend to ex-spouses.

Clark said Tuesday anyone who has an ex-spouse knows they have a right to manage their career as they see fit.

But as premier, she said in an abundance of caution she wanted to avoid any real or perceived conflict. So she is directing her deputy minister to note her recusal from any refinery issues, and delegate any decisions to Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

The Opposition said she made the right move, but will be watching closely to make sure she follows through.

The provincial government's role on such projects has more to do with routine permitting. Approvals are more of a federal responsibility.

Based on Black's work on the $13-billion Kitimat Clean refinery, it will quite a while before the B.C. government has to decide anything about Pacific Future Energy. Black unveiled his idea 22 months ago and has been working quietly on a number of issues. The Environmental Assessment Office has received a draft description of the project and provided some comments. But Kitimat Clean is still some time away from submitting anything formal to the provincial government.

Clark said she went to conflict-of-interest commissioner Paul Fraser for advice last week, after she learned that the newest refinery idea was "real."

It's actually been talked about privately for some months. Marissen is one of several executives listed as being involved, some of them with past experience with a huge Mexican industrial conglomerate. It's believed that organization is funding the initial work. They made contact with Black last year to discuss his proposal with a view to buying in, but he is believed to have wanted to retain Canadian control of the refinery. So they struck out on their own.

Their decision to go public validates Black's concept: Refining oil adds value to the resource and lessens the risk of catastrophe in the event of a marine spill, since gasoline or kerosene is vastly easier to mitigate than heavy diluted bitumen. And Pacific Future is matching Kitimat Clean in claiming to be planning the cleanest, greenest refinery in the world.

But it's not the idea of a coastal refinery that starts the arguments. It's the idea of bringing oil to the coast that has drawn sustained heat. Either or both refineries could use bitumen supplied by rail. But a second refinery concept will ratchet up interest in the upcoming Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline decision another notch.