The Trans Mountain Expansion Project can still be stopped

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It’s been only six weeks since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its frightening “code red” report on the climate crisis, but it is difficult to sense much urgency around the issue amid this federal election.

 Indeed, the prevailing mainstream consensus seems to be that we can keep kicking the (oil) can down the road for a few more decades, especially when it comes to tar sands pipelines.

In what may have been the most surreal moment in the English language Leaders’ Debate on September 9, moderator Shachi Kurl (president of polling giant Angus Reid) introduced the segment on climate change by saying this: “Canada’s transition to a green economy depends on pipelines. Tell me, which one of you is best to lead on these complex issues?”

There was a slight pause between Kurl’s first and second sentence, and in that pause some viewers may have assumed that Kurl was about to question the Liberal Party’s ridiculous recent assertion that Trans Mountain Pipeline revenue will be needed to fight climate change. Instead, Kurl stated this as a given.

As dogwoodbc.ca’s Kai Nagata noted, “The night went downhill from there.”

Transition?

The Justin Trudeau government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan in 2018 for $4.5 billion. The planned expansion would nearly triple the amount of diluted bitumen moving from the Alberta tar sands to British Columbia to 890,000 barrels per day for export.

During an interview on CBC’s Power & Politics with guest host Katie Simpson on August 10, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson said that in the transition to a clean energy future:

“Canada needs to ensure that in the context of that transition, it’s extracting full value for its resources and using that money to push forward in terms of reducing emissions.”

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has “got to be part of the transition,” Wilkinson said, because “part of the transition is being able to raise the revenues that enable you to actually make the investments that are required” to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Trans Mountain expansion would lock in tar sands extraction for decades. Quite apart from the absurdity of Wilkinson’s claim, it’s not at all clear that there will be any revenues from Trans Mountain, but there will be debts.

The Trudeau cabinet has consistently ignored repeated requests from MPs for a detailed accounting of what the project will cost. The price tag has already risen to at least $12.6 billion.

In August, there was some media coverage of a first quarter report by the Canada Development Investment Corporation — the Crown agency that owns, operates, and oversees the expansion project. The report stated that “further financing sources will be required by Trans Mountain,” and that the agency is “in discussion with the Department of Finance in this regard.”

In December 2020, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report indicating that the Trans Mountain pipeline project — if ever completed — would likely lose billions of dollars.

The Trudeau government has often said that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would open up markets in Asia and thereby ensure that a “fair price” is paid for the resource, which is heavy, sulphur-rich oil that needs specially-equipped refineries. But an October 2020 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ B.C. office, written by J. David Hughes, found that tar sands producers would likely be taking a loss of $4 to $6 per barrel if they sold to Asian refineries through Trans Mountain, rather than to U.S. refiners who are already configured to take heavy oil.

That makes it more likely that the exported diluted bitumen from the pipeline would actually go to refineries in California and Washington state, rather than to Asia.

“Gasoline on a wildfire”

Environmentalists state that the 890,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil to be shipped through the pipeline will release the same amount of climate pollution as 33 coal-fired power plants. Tzeporah Berman, international program director for Stand.earth, has said: “Building a new pipeline in a climate emergency is like pouring gasoline on a wildfire.”

Nonetheless, construction of the 1,150-kilometre long pipeline has continued during the pandemic and is now 30 per cent complete. The lengthy project has nine sections or “spreads” charted across the two provinces — which have some challenging terrain — and some of those sections haven’t even been started yet.

Construction  reached a major milestone on May 26, when boring for a 2.6-kilometre tunnel through Burnaby Mountain began. The tunnel is necessary to connect the Burnaby tank farm and the Westridge Marine Terminal (both of which are being expanded) with the pipeline.

According to Business in Vancouver:

“Chewing through a mountain required specialized machinery. A custom-built tunnel boring machine was built by Herrenknecht AG in Germany at a cost of about $10 milion. The machine is 122 meters long — the length of a soccer field — and is operated by a crew of 12, who work inside the machine. The machine operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It will take about 290 days to complete the tunnel. As of the end of June, only about 25 meters of the tunnel had been excavated.” 

Ambiguity

Not surprisingly, many people who live in or near Burnaby are completely opposed to Trans Mountain. But Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP who is running for re-election in Burnaby South, refuses to commit his party to one side of the issue.

 In late August, Singh told Burnaby Now:

“I’ve been really clear. I’ve been opposed to this project from the beginning. I think that we could use our money better, we could invest immediately in creating jobs for people in the resource sector and in other sectors, we can invest immediately into renewable energy, we can invest immediately into creating jobs and creating jobs that will be long-lasting. That would be my priority. And once we form government, we will look at the asset and make the best determination on what to do moving forward.”

During the Sept. 9 English language Leaders’ Debate, Singh was asked, “Don’t you owe Canadians a clear answer” on Trans Mountain? “Absolutely,” he replied, but then dodged the question.

A few days later, during an interview with The Tyee, Singh was asked again: “So would you cancel the expansion project? And how do we migrate from pipelines to clean energy?”

Singh answered: “That’s a good question. We don’t know how far Justin Trudeau has taken the project, so as soon as we’re in government we’ll take a look at it and make the best decision for Canadians.” 

For many, it’s a frustrating answer.

The Green Party’s Elizabeth May, for example, has argued that the NDP could have made cancelling Trans Mountain a condition for supporting Liberal legislation. “Singh had all the cards,” May tweeted in late August. “Holding the balance of power. He never once made any climate action a condition before giving Trudeau support.” 

In his ambiguity, perhaps Singh is simply being pragmatic.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, on the other hand, is very clear. He’s in favour of all tar sands pipelines, and even wants to revive Northern Gateway; the proposed diluted bitumen pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. that was canceled by the Trudeau government in 2016.

Similarly, Maxime Bernier’s Peoples’ Party of Canada supports all tar sands pipelines.

The Green Party of Canada and the Bloc Quebecois are the only federal parties that have clearly stated they are opposed to Trans Mountain.

Resistance

In a very effective global campaign in 2021, a coalition of environmental and Indigenous organizations have pressured insurers to stop their coverage of Trans Mountain. Indeed, the campaign was so effective that Trans Mountain asked the Canada Energy Regulator to protect its insurers by keeping their identities secret. As Stand.earth noted in a…

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