Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Why we’ll be talking about the Trans Mountain pipeline for a long while yet

The embattled oilsands pipeline has become a proxy battle, pitting the urgency of the climate crisis against near-term economic concerns

The Trans Mountain pipeline has become an ant under a magnifying glass: the project has so much energy focused on it from all sides, it seems that it should have spontaneously combusted years ago. That hasn’t happened, but just about everything else that can happen to a major project has.

It’s been approved by the federal government.

Its approval has been quashed by the Federal Court of Appeal.

It was bought by the federal government.

And now that the federal government — its owners — has approved the pipeline (again) things are looking sunny for Trans Mountain proponents once more.

But how did a pipeline that a decade ago was only known to a subset of the oil industry and B.C. activists become the focus of national attention, protests, lawsuits, arrests and even a few elections? And how does the approval square with the federal government’s declaration of a climate emergency, issued just yesterday?

Let’s break it down.

Not-so-humble beginnings

The Trans Mountain pipeline was an audacious undertaking even in its current form. Its 1,150 km length runs — as the name implies — across the Rocky Mountains, from Edmonton to Burnaby. It’s the only pipeline to do so in Canada.

But about 60 years after it was built, the oil industry began protesting publicly in the early 2010s that demand had outstripped pipeline capacity, and that it was suffering at the hands of American refineries. Having the U.S. as Canada’s sole export market, they argued, was resulting in billions of dollars in lost profits as well as a hobbled ability to expand. (That argument has been hotly contested by people like Robyn Allan, the former CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia.)

Pleas from industry for new high-capacity pipelines have gone unanswered thus far. From Energy East to Keystone XL to Northern Gateway, the approval process has been a Sisyphean task, getting only so far before rolling back downhill for one reason or another.

Low worldwide oil prices, meanwhile, have cut the legs out from under oilsands production, which needs a much higher baseline price to remain viable compared to cheaper forms of oil. The industry sees the additional capacity from the Trans Mountain project as a way to reach what it views as more lucrative markets in Asia.

When times were still good in the oilpatch, in 2013, Trans Mountain’s then-owner, Kinder Morgan, proposed a second pipeline to run more or less parallel to the original that would more than double the capacity.

Environmentalists, communities and First Nations responded to the proposal with alarm. The reasons for the opposition vary, but the most commonly cited concerns include pipeline spills; additional oil tanker traffic on the coast and the associated ship noise and pollution; a lack of Indigenous consultation; and the climate risks of locking in increased oilsands production for at least a generation.

With such broad rationales for opposition, stopping the pipeline has become a rallying cry for progressives of all stripes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on a promise to fix the environmental review process that resulted in the National Energy Board ultimately approving the project in 2016.

So it came to the dismay of many when Trudeau’s government took such a shine to the pipeline that in 2018 the federal government bought it for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan.

But the champagne may have been premature: the same day as Kinder Morgan shareholders approved the deal, the Federal Court of Appeal* overturned the 2013 National Energy Board decision, saying the government had not meaningfully consulted with First Nations or considered its environmental impacts.

Both of those issues have been pinned on the Harper government’s changes to environmental assessment legislation in 2012. Those changes stripped many of the considerations from the approval process in the name of expediting projects like Trans Mountain.

One pipeline — four elections

On the provincial level, it’s another story: two elections have already been won on the back of Trans Mountain.

First there was B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, who said in 2016 that the project would put the coast and the jobs that depend on it at risk. He was elected the following year, and then-Alberta premier Rachel Notley’s Great Wine Boycott of February 2018 was just one of the skirmishes that ensued along the B.C.-Alberta border.

Horgan later asked the B.C. Court of Appeal whether he has the authority to block bitumen originating in another province from reaching the B.C. coast; it ruled in May that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over interprovincial pipelines.

Notley cheered the decision, but from the sidelines: United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney had already been elected in April on a platform of smiling whilst saying “pipelines,” and frowning whilst putting “Notley” and “Trudeau” in the same sentence.

Kenney has continued to voice his disapproval of Trudeau’s lack of wand-waving to magick the pipeline into existence. Kenney’s first trip as premier took him to Ottawa to meet with Trudeau and discuss Trans Mountain, after describing his congratulatory phone call from the prime minister as “a respectful conversation about a number of issues, including the need to get Canadian energy to foreign markets.”

Pipelines have already become an issue for 2019’s federal election, with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer proposing a new free-trade deal between provinces that would clarify the rules around tricky interprovincial issues — like pipelines — while accusing Trudeau of dragging his heels on Trans Mountain.

“I believe it is Justin Trudeau’s strategy to not have this pipeline even started to be built by the next election,” he said at a speech in Calgary in October. “He just can’t admit that it will be dead by the next election.”

Trudeau himself has already suffered a blow to his support from B.C. throughout the pipeline battle — while not gaining any ground in Alberta, where he remains a pariah despite having bought and voiced support for the pipeline.

Trans Mountain has even been the elephant in the room in municipal elections. Both the winner and runner-up in the last Burnaby election expressed furious opposition to the project, as did Kennedy Stewart in his winning mayoral campaign in Vancouver.

What’s next?

The federal approval likely won’t be the end of the story.

Both the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations, in whose traditional territory the pipeline ends, celebrated the court’s decision against Trans Mountain and have urged the government to reject it (other First Nations along the route have signed their support for it).

More lawsuits will almost certainly be filed, and more activists will activate. In April, 71-year-old Terry Christenson climbed a tree at the Burnaby terminal and refused to come down for 34 hours. He was later arrested — but following an approval, protests like Christenson’s will likely rage on along the pipeline route.

Even Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been arrested, alongside Vancouver mayor-elect (then NDP MP) Kennedy Stewart, at Trans Mountain protests.

Some First Nations have promised Oka-like standoffs. If the approvals stage has seemed ugly, it is sure to get even uglier as construction proceeds.

Climate anxieties

The pipeline has also become a focal point for Canadians’ anxiety over climate change. Under the Paris agreement, Canada has committed to lowering its emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by midcentury. That commitment precludes locking in further expansion of oilsands without bringing all other economic sectors down to more or less neutral emissions.

Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand has said Canada is not on track to meet its targets, calling out Canada’s slow progress as “disturbing.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada estimated the additional oil produced and processed by Trans Mountain would release 13 to 15 million more tonnes of carbon dioxide every year — and that’s just the upstream emissions, not counting the actual end use. But climate impacts were not considered by the National Energy Board’s review, which approved the pipeline.

“We have a decade to drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption,” B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said in a written statement on Monday. “Building a new pipeline for diluted bitumen with a lifespan of 40 to 50 years is utterly incompatible with our responsibility as elected leaders to respond to the biggest crisis we face.”

Oil by land and sea

Not all of the oil passing through Trans Mountain will make it to its destination to be burned. Trans Mountain has reported 84 spills in its decades of operation to the National Energy Board. Some have been worse than others. In one case, 11 Burnaby houses were coated in oil after the pipeline ruptured in the city.

Opponents are worried about the potential spills from tankers, as well; the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation commissioned a study from Simon Fraser University that found the likelihood of a “worst-case” spill of over 100,000 barrels to be 29 per cent over 50 years.

Twinning the pipeline would increase tanker traffic in and out of Burrard Inlet sevenfold, and on their way to the ocean tankers have to pass through the Juan de Fuca Strait, home to a critically endangered population of 76 southern resident killer whales. Ship noise has been blamed for some of their decline because it impedes their ability to use sound for hunting.

Today’s approval, scientists say, could seal the fate of the whales. But it has already shaped municipal, provincial and federal politics, pitted two of Canada’s most populous provinces against one another and stretched the seams of federalism for a decade.

Whether it’s built or not, Trans Mountain has already permanently left its mark on Canada.

*Correction made at 11 p.m. on June 19, 2019: The article originally stated the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the National Energy Board’s original approval of the Trans Mountain expansion project. In fact, that decision was made by the Federal Court of Appeal.

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