VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Few energy projects captured more headlines this past year than the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. It inspired massive protests, sparked a mini-trade war between western neighbours, and tested the Trudeau government’s commitments to environmentalists and First Nations.
The multi-billion dollar project would effectively twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from the Edmonton area to Burnaby, nearly tripling its capacity to 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen per day. It would also increase tanker traffic in the environmentally-fragile Burrard Inlet seven times over.
LISTEN: NEWS 1130’s Kurtis Doering looks back on the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase
The project faced opposition from the beginning, but as construction ramped up in 2018, so too did the protests. Several large “Stop Kinder Morgan” rallies took over the streets of Vancouver and other major cities during the Spring, and protest camps popped up once again near Kinder Morgan’s work sites on Burnaby mountain.
Hundreds of people were arrested for violating a BC Supreme Court injunction to stay five metres away from those sites, including Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, and then-NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, who would become the mayor of Vancouver just a few months later.
“I feel I have no choice, at this point, but to do this to amplify the deep, deep opposition to this project that’s felt by my constituents,” Stewart said at the time.
Bad blood between western neighbours
B.C. Premier John Horgan, who pledged during his election campaign to use “every tool in the toolbox” to oppose the Trans Mountain expansion, was also attempting to make good on that promise.
In January, Horgan’s government announced a proposal to restrict increased shipments of diluted bitumen while it studied the environmental impact of a potential spill. The province also appealed a National Energy Board (NEB) decision that allowed Kinder Morgan to bypass local regulations during construction.
Trans Mountain quickly became a sticking point between B.C. and its eastern neighbour.
“The government of British Columbia is taking direct aim at the jobs and economic security of hundreds of thousands of Canadians — including tens of thousands of British Columbians — by threatening to limit what can go inside a pipeline — which they don’t have the authority to do,” Alberta Trade Minister Deron Bilous said in a statement.
In retaliation, Premier Rachel Notley briefly ceased Alberta’s imports of B.C. wines, and later legislated the ability for her province to limit the westward flow of oil, or even cut it off entirely.
A $4.5 billion gamble
But all the opposition was already taking its toll on Kinder Morgan.
In April, the company announced it was suspending all non-essential work on the pipeline, putting thousands of energy jobs and potentially the economic future of the country in limbo. It also gave Ottawa and Victoria until the end of May to reach a deal to get the project moving, or the company would abandon it.
On May 29th, the federal government doubled down on its support of the Trans Mountain expansion, announcing it would spend $4.5 billion of taxpayer money to purchase the project, and all of Kinder Morgan Canada’s core assets.
“We believe that this is the best way to protect thousands of good, well-paying jobs, and the safest and most effective way to get our natural resources to world markets,” said Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
“Make no mistake, this is an investment in Canada’s future.”
Taxpayer advocates and environmental groups were outraged, as were many First Nations groups, who accused the Trudeau government of betraying its promises to protect their land and sovereignty.
“I think this is a form of dinosaur thinking,” said Ben West with Tanker Free BC. “The government of Canada should not be facilitating climate change. It should be taking steps to move us beyond it.”
An unexpected twist
On the very day that Kinder Morgan shareholders approved the sale, the Federal Court of Appeals overturned the NEB’s approval of the Trans Mountain expansion, citing a failure to adequately consult with Indigenous groups.
“I cannot begin any words to express our feeling of elation, happiness and joy,” Squamish councillor Khelsilem said following the ruling. “Indigenous people have won. This project is stopped in its tracks right now.”
The decision also said the energy regulator must reconsider the project’s environmental assessment and factor in how increased oil tanker traffic will affect marine life.
The government, choosing not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, gave the NEB an ambitious deadline of Feb. 22, 2019, to complete the new review.
Despite the setback, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has re-affirmed his commitment to the project, arguing it is in the best interest of all Canadians to see it through. Indigenous groups meanwhile, have vowed to continue opposing the project.
The Trans Mountain expansion is far from the only pipeline project to face intense opposition, and as average global temperatures rise and the predictions of climate scientists become increasingly dire, multi-billion dollar fossil fuel projects will only become more difficult to build.
“Pipelines are a challenging business to be in,” says UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison.
“There is stronger opposition than ever before to the oil industry. I think oil industry execs are well aware of that.”
Harrison cites a theory by German economist Hans-Werner Sinn called the “Green Paradox:” when environmental policies become more strict, the owners of fossil fuel resources are incentivized to accelerate resource extraction.
“I suspect that’s what we’re seeing with the oil industry. They know that the writing is on the wall — that in the years to come, their markets either need to disappear or we’re going to face much bigger challenges as a planet, and they are trying to get what they can to the market while they can.”
Harrison adds the Trans Mountain controversy has also laid bare contractions within the Trudeau government’s policies: namely, attempting to show climate leadership on the world stage while expanding Canada’s production of heavy oil for export.
It’s a contradiction which may not be lost on voters in 2019.
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