At issue: Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline

By Judith Lavoie, September 2015

Where do the parties stand on allowing another 890,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen to be shipped past Victoria each day?

An intricate pipeline-politics dance is being performed in the run-up to October’s election as BC voters question federal candidates about their stand on Kinder Morgan’s plans to triple the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline running from Alberta’s oil sands to the west coast. The 1000 kilometres of new pipe would allow 890,000 barrels a day of bitumen (diluted with other hydrocarbons) to flow across BC to an expanded Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby.

If the $5.4-billion expansion is approved, the number of supertankers travelling from the Port of Vancouver to Asian markets, through Burrard Inlet, the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, would grow to about 34 a month, up from the current five a month. The prospect of at least one bitumen-carrying supertanker a day passing within spitting distance of Dallas Road, means it is a front-of-mind issue for many southern Vancouver Island residents.

Unsurprisingly, at one end of the spectrum are the Conservatives, who regard pipelines as an essential part of Canada’s economic development along the road to becoming an energy superpower. At the other end are the Greens who adamantly oppose the Trans Mountain expansion, emphasizing that a switch to green energy makes more financial sense.

The fancy footwork is coming from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who are hedging their bets, criticizing the process but stopping short of making a commitment to scrap the project.

Mulcair and Trudeau have attacked the controversial National Energy Board hearings, due to wrap up early next year. They have also condemned Conservative cuts to environmental oversight, emphasizing that flaws in the Trans Mountain assessment process have led to a breakdown in public confidence.

But Mulcair, while on Vancouver Island in August, carefully sidestepped the question of whether he would scrap the project and, instead, described the environmental assessment process as “singularly defective” and stressed that decisions on such projects should not rest with government. “It’s up to governments to put in place structures that can analyze them,” he said. Mulcair did give some hope to pipeline opponents by adding: “Right now, there’s no way to approve Kinder Morgan.”

It’s a wobbly tightrope and some local Liberal and NDP candidates, who know the emotional tug of the issue here, seem to be opposing the project more strongly than their leaders.

Murray Rankin, NDP incumbent in Victoria, an expert in environmental law, said he feels strongly that the Kinder Morgan project “as it is conceived, is not acceptable.” It cannot be approved, he said, because the process is broken with no cross-examination allowed during the NEB hearings, no consideration of climate change in the deliberations, no meaningful First Nations involvement, and community opposition clearly showing there is no social licence.

The NEB hearings have been a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the decision-making process and last month 35 participants dropped out of the comment process, saying it was biased and unfair.

For some, a final straw was the appointment (by the Conservative government) to the NEB of Steven Kelly who had worked as  Kinder Morgan’s main energy consultant, thereby adding credence to charges that the NEB had become a “pipeline approval board.” Even the NEB got the message. On August 21, it announced an indefinite delay to the hearings (which were to commence on August 24), citing concerns about public confidence in NEB as a result of Kelly’s appointment. NEB spokesperson Tara O’Donovan stated, “The dual role of Mr Kelly, as a person who prepared evidence in this proceeding and as a future board member, may raise concerns about the integrity of this hearing process. With this in mind, the panel has decided on its own volition to strike all evidence prepared by or the under the direction of Mr Kelly from the hearing record.” 

David Merner, Liberal hopeful in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, supports his leader’s position that the NEB is broken and needs to be fixed, but he goes further.

“My view is that it doesn’t make sense to put our fisheries and tourism industry at risk and export bitumen from the BC coast,” he said. Instead, Canadians should insist that the bitumen is refined here, he noted.

The Liberals have a proud tradition of fighting to protect the coast, Merner said, pointing to the Liberal government’s moratorium on oil tanker traffic through inland waters, dating back to 1972.

Observers such as the Dogwood Initiative, who have tracked candidates’ views on the pipeline, believe some of that attitude may be rubbing off on Trudeau, who appears to be strengthening his views as the campaign progresses. Trudeau initially campaigned for new environmental assessment and NEB processes to provide a balance between environmental protection and getting resources to market. But, during a campaign stop in Esquimalt, Trudeau assured Dogwood Initiative director Kai Nagata that, if elected prime minister, he will send Kinder Morgan back to the drawing board. “That process needs to be redone,” he said. “If these things can’t be done right, they shouldn’t be done.” 

However, for those who want more than a condemnation of the process, the Green Party is the only one to unequivocally reject the Trans Mountain twinning, with both leader Elizabeth May and local candidates on the same page. “The Green Party is the only party opposed to all new export pipelines from the oil sands,” says the campaign literature. “Only one party has pledged to keep Canada’s West Coast crude oil supertanker-free.”

Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke Green candidate Frances Litman expressed frustration, describing the pipeline project as “a giant Ponzi scheme…I can’t believe we are still having this conversation when there has been so much testimony against it.” She noted that British Columbians have not forgotten what happened on Burnaby Mountain late last year, when Kinder Morgan insisted on cutting trees in the park and then filed lawsuits against protesters. “Who is Kinder Morgan to be so all-powerful?” she asked.

Litman also pointed to the painfully slow cleanup of a relatively small spill of bunker oil in English Bay in April. If any more evidence were needed that an oil spill in the waters around Vancouver and Vancouver Island could be catastrophic, there it was, she said.

The Green Party platform is built on a five-year plan to switch from a fossil fuel-based economy to renewable energy, which will create many more jobs than the oil sands, said Litman, pointing to Germany where green jobs and renewables are an integral part of the flourishing economy. 

It’s a viewpoint supported by Green leader Elizabeth May, the Saanich-Gulf Islands incumbent. “We have already seen how Harper’s strategy of putting all our eggs in the bitumen basket has hurt our economy,” she said. 

As the divestment movement grows and as oil prices remain low (or decline further), more people may be swayed with Green Party arguments—including those around jobs and the economy, not just the environment.

As for local Conservative candidates, they seem largely missing in action when it comes to the subject of pipelines and tankers. When sought for comment on the subject, Victoria Conservative candidate John Rizzuti’s campaign manager Bill Donaldson said the candidate was busy. “We have decided we are not going to comment on pipelines and related issues at this time,” he said.

At the campaign office for Shari Lukens, who is running for the Conservatives in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, a spokeswoman said, “Shari won’t be commenting on these issues. Her priority is meeting her constituents,” adding that Lukens might be available after the Labour Day weekend.

There is no doubt that oil sands expansion—meaning pipelines across BC and numerous super tankers plying coastal waters—is a minefield for most local politicians. Just ask former provincial NDP leader Adrian Dix, who appeared set to form government in 2013 until, in a mid-campaign flip-flop, he announced his opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. Post-election analysis indicated that may have appeased New Democrats drifting towards the Green Party, but apparently spooked blue-collar voters and delivered victory to the BC Liberals.

University of Victoria political scientist Michael Prince said the pipeline is an especially tricky topic for Mulcair who, as polls show him taking the lead, is being cautious on controversial issues. “I think he’s trying to find a more nuanced position, but there may be risks to that,” said Prince.

One of those complications may be that, in addition to the strong anti-Trans Mountain feelings of even some NDP candidates, other powerful opponents of the pipeline expansion include such powerful NDPers as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

Inextricably linked to the pipeline question is the effect on climate change, and a key point in the growing dissatisfaction with the NEB is the decision not to consider climate change in its deliberations.

While both Mulcair and Trudeau have said that must change, the Green Party, which estimates the Trans Mountain expansion would increase oil sands production by 31 percent, wants climate change to become a priority during consideration of all energy projects.

At the root of the issue is the rate of development in the oil sands, said Liberal David Merner, who would like all premiers to get together and come up with a national carbon price, possibly similar to BC’s carbon tax, in an effort to control the rate of development.

Rankin noted that the oil sands are Canada’s biggest source of greenhouse gases and the fastest growing source of emissions, so, using science-based evidence, the effects on climate must be part of the equation as energy projects are considered.

One partial solution could be based on the polluter-pay principle, meaning that any company extracting bitumen must pay for all aspects of carbon emissions, Rankin said. Simultaneously, all industry subsidies should cease, he said, speculating that, with those measures, oil sands development would slow.

With only the Green Party unequivocally opposed to Kinder Morgan’s expansion plans, it may be worth pressing all candidates and party leaders to talk about what they will do to fix an assessment process that appears broken. An independent cost-benefit economic analysis of the pipeline for BC also seems in order.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith