Canada’s Petro-Politics Playing Out on B.C.’s Burnaby Mountain

The way tensions between pipeline opponents and Kinder Morgan contractors have escalated during the last week should come as a surprise to no one.

The mishandling of the National Energy Board review of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker proposal has created the conditions for the situation now unfolding on the mountainside.

And with the continuing loss of faith in these federal reviews — which even before being refigured to “expedite” energy proposals were already ill-equipped to grapple with the larger societal issues, such as climate change, related to energy proposals — we can expect to see more controversy across B.C. and likely along the route of TransCanada’s Energy East.

How did it come to this?

In 2012, the federal government passed omnibus budget bill C-38 — despite significant upheaval in Parliament — which overhauled Canada’s environmental assessment process.

The changes contained in that bill condensed project review timelines, seriously restricted public participation in the assessment process and limited what environmental concerns are deemed relevant to projects such as pipelines.

Now, during the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline review process, these changes are coming into effect.

It began with climate change impacts being overlooked in the terms of reference for the review — just as they had been in the Enbridge Northern Gateway review. But then it got worse. 

Hundreds of concerned citizens who considered themselves directly affected by the project were denied intervener status by the National Energy Board, the federal body overseeing the pipeline review process.

A group of 27 climate experts, including economists, scientists and political and social scientists, were rejected from participating in the hearings because they wanted to discuss the project’s significance to Canada’s climate targets.

In total, 468 citizens had their application for intervenor status rejected, leading stultified onlookers to call the process “Kafkaesque.”

To add insult to injury, the National Energy Board then quietly removed oral hearings from the review process, meaning oral cross-examination — during which live witnesses are questioned under oath — will play no role in the Trans Mountain pipeline review.

This step reduced the Kinder Morgan “review” to a mere paperwork exercise.

Participants are allowed to pose questions via writing to Kinder Morgan about the impacts of its proposal to triple the amount of oilsands bitumen it ships via pipeline to Burnaby — but the company has failed to treat these questions seriously.

For instance, Ecojustice lawyers asked the company to explain the potential effect of an oil spill on marine fish.

Kinder Morgan’s response? “Harm to marine fish populations seems to be the exception, rather than the rule, following marine oil spills.”

That was one of the better answers compared to the 20 Ecojustice questions Kinder Morgan refused to answer on the basis they were “not relevant” or the company simply didn’t know the answer.

Even the Province of British Columbia had to ask the National Energy Board to compel Kinder Morgan to answer dozens of questions the company had skirted — including failing to provide emergency response documents.

The review process has been so incomplete the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose territory overlooks the Burrard Inlet and Kinder Morgan tanker facilities, launched a legal action to challenge the review process on the basis of failed consultation and a fundamental mischaracterization of the project, which includes not just an expanded pipeline but terminals, storage facilities and increased tanker traffic.

Energy executive Marc Eliesen quit the review process amongst much fanfare earlier this month, saying it was “fraudulent” and an act of “public deception.” He accused the NEB of jury-rigging the process with a “pre-determined outcome.” (Read more about Eliesen’s crippling reasons for leaving.)

What’s more, a new report from SFU and The Goodman Group Ltd. shows Kinder Morgan exaggerated the jobs associated with the pipeline construction while seriously underplaying the risk of a potential pipeline rupture. And remember, this pipeline has already ruptured on several occasions, including once in 2007, sending 250,000 litres of crude into the community and 70,000 into the Burrard Inlet.

So with a community on edge and unconvinced of the benefits of the pipeline, and with the local municipality officially opposed to the project, Kinder Morgan perhaps made a critical error sending survey crews to conservation areas on Burnaby Mountain with chainsaws in September.

The city of Burnaby responded with issuing a stop work order claiming the company did not have the right to damage property protected by city bylaws. The National Energy Board, however, told the company to continue on with its legally allowable work, even if that meant cutting down trees on the mountainside.

It’s within the minutia of that legal interpretation — the tension between community self-determination and the energy board’s ruling on allowable survey work — that the Burnaby Mountain protest movement was born.

And for all the reasons above — not to mention the upstream impacts of oilsands development on climate, local ecosystems and First Nations’ territorial rights — this fight should surprise no one.

There has been no credible and democratic way for residents of Burnaby, or citizens in B.C. for that matter, to weigh in on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. There has been no legitimate forum for the concerns of the community, of local First Nations and of a variety of climate and environmental experts.

Although Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has promised to fight the pipeline by every available legal means, the federal government has made it virtually impossible for citizens to register their opposition to this project in any way other than protest.

And that’s a problem. Because with similar opposition foreseeable for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline (especially after the company’s downright dirty PR tactics were leaked in documents from Edelman last week), Canada can expect more of these conflicts in our future.

And we should not have to stand for that.

This set of circumstances is fair to no one: not to locally elected municipal leaders looking to represent their constituents, not to communities looking to protect their environments and personal well-being and not to companies looking for stable operating conditions.

The act of proposing a pipeline is a legitimate thing to do in our society. Businesses should have the opportunity to pursue economic opportunities just as communities should have the opportunity to say no if a proposal doesn’t fit in with their long-term plans.

But with a government working in the interests of industry, citizens have been left out of the decision-making process, where the only way to register their voice is from behind the blockade line where they are marginalized, or worse, criminalized as radicals.

Our federal government is failing to lead on one of the biggest issues of our time. What Canada really needs is a grownup national conversation about an energy strategy that meets Canada’s international climate commitments. Until that happens, these debates will continue to play out dysfunctionally during technical review processes that were never designed to answer such large societal questions.

So as the saga of Burnaby Mountain continues to unfold, we should all be asking: who really is acting in the public interest? 

Image Credit: Zack Embree

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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