Trans Mountain Oil Sands: new pipeline, same old problems?

The National Energy Board of Canada has recommended that plans for the Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline go ahead, initiating protests from tribal and environmental groups. The plans could benefit Canada’s economy, especially after the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, but it could also have detrimental effects on wildlife; arguments that Prime Minister Trudeau has until the end of 2017 to weigh up.


protest coalmine

Calculating the balance between economic benefits and environmental risks is an important part of any fossil fuel development that could have a negative impact on the surrounding region. Environmental groups and indigenous populations are getting their voices heard more easily with the use of internet petitions and increased awareness of nature's value, but this doesn't always mean projects are halted as a result.

On 19 May, Canada's energy regulator the National Energy Board (NEB) approved a proposed extension to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline between Canada and the US, saying that overall, building it was in the Canadian public interest.

"It was definitely a comprehensive review that took place over two years," says NEB communications officer Tara O'Donovan. "They took into consideration all the evidence, all of the information by the parties, and [decided] there were considerable benefits nationally as well as regionally and locally.

"The board found that the project benefits outweighed the residual burdens."

The scale and impact of the project

The pipeline is essentially a way to get Canadian oil to the market. Canada has the resources, but companies need to build pipelines to facilitate transport. The current plans are to expand and repair the pipeline that heads to Vancouver on the west coast, by creating a twin pipe and completing the connection between Strathcona County, Alberta and Burnaby in British Columbia.

If approved by Justin Trudeau's cabinet, the plans will include around 987km of new pipeline, new pump stations and tanks, and the revival of 193km of the currently deactivated pipeline. The $5.4bn project would carry oil from Alberta's oil sands to Vancouver in British Columbia to be loaded onto tankers to be exported to Asia and the US, tripling the volume currently moved to nearly 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The recommendation, however, has not been welcome news to environmentalists and indigenous groups, who believe that the sevenfold increase to shipping through the Salish Sea would inarguably increase the risk of oil spills.

Francesca Hillery from the indigenous group Tulalip Tribes says that their culture is heavily contingent upon healthy and productive fisheries, and damaging this habitat would be irreparable for generations.

"Tar Sands oil is even more dangerous than regular oil should a spill occur."

"One oil spill could devastate opportunities for tribal members to practice their ancient cultural traditions for decades," Hillery says. "Tar Sands oil is even more dangerous than regular oil should a spill occur... Increased vessel traffic also interferes with tribal fishing and also represents a danger to tribal fisherman in small boats."

In a statement, the Tulalip Tribes chairman said: "We cannot sit idly by while these waters are threatened by reckless increases in oil tanker traffic and the increased risk of catastrophic oil spills."

In response to this, O'Donovan says that there is certainly a risk of oil spills, but the chance of such a spill happening is very low, given the safety measures that Trans Mountain must adhere to. She says that the board would "never approve a project that cannot be built and operated safely."

"We can't say that there's no risk, but that's the goal we strive for," she says. "In our thorough regulatory oversight and by meeting the high standard of the industry, we require companies to demonstrate that they've done everything possible to identify any risks and to mitigate them."

Following the terms and conditions

The NEB claims that there are 157 conditions to the recommendation that address environmental and cultural concerns, including that the company offsets greenhouse gas emissions from the construction of the project. Another condition will require Trans Mountain to develop a marine mammal protection programme to protect wildlife in the area, particularly orca whales.

The company also has to support any initiatives that are created that try to understand or lessen project risks and effects. The board will oversee the pipeline's development to ensure that all of the conditions are met, and also make sure there's a suitable strategy in place should a disaster occur.

Before coming to the decision of recommending the pipeline, O'Donovan says that a comprehensive review was carried out over two years in order to consider every viewpoint. She says that along with conducting environmental assessments under the NEB Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), 507 information requests were sent to Trans Mountain.

Additionally, impartial interveners were involved in the process, which sent Trans Mountain 17,000 information requests and testing of the evidence, all of which led to summary arguments in front of a panel.

One of the benefits that Canada is expecting from the pipeline is the creation of construction and management jobs. O'Donovan says that there are 400-600 jobs available per job site, between 360 and 370 tank construction jobs and 95 roles available in marine terminal construction.

In total, over the first 20 years of operation, Trans Mountain is forecasting 443 jobs per year, with 313 based in British Columbia and the remainder in Alberta.

Pipeline problems: déjà vu?

Back in 2015, an earlier Canadian pipeline project called Keystone XL was rejected by the Obama administration. It was proposed to start from Alberta in Canada, where Keystone pipelines were already installed, and was set to add 526km of new pipes.

After more than six years of reviewing the benefits of transporting American-produced oil to Nebraska as well as the environmental concerns, the Keystone XL project was cancelled. This was largely due to the controversy generated from the pipeline being routed over the Sandhills in Nebraska, which is home to sensitive ecosystems and protected wetlands.

"There are concerns that plans for the Trans Mountain pipeline could be scuppered by environmental risks. "

While there may be concerns that plans for the Trans Mountain pipeline could be scuppered by environmental risks and then rejected, O'Donovan says that Keystone XL had a very different set of circumstances.

"This particular pipeline is entirely within the Canadian border, so this company doesn't need to go to the United States for an approval," she says.

Tackling Trudeau's environmental conscience

Ultimately, the decision lies with the Canadian Government, who are expected to read through the 533-page report from the NEB and reach a decision by the end of this year. Canada's prime minister will face fierce opposition from environmentalists, as well as councillors from cities across the country.

The capital of British Columbia, Victoria, participated as one of the interveners for the hearings, and its councillors are strongly against the pipeline expansion. Councillor Jeremy Loveday said that the project would significantly increase traffic on the Victoria coast and an oil spill off the coast would be "catastrophic for our environment and our economy."

There is an evident split developing in the province between people who are concerned about creating more jobs and growing the economy, and those who are concerned for the environment.

Whether the conditions to the recommendation will be enough to speak to the prime minister's environmental beliefs is as yet unknown.

What is clear, however, is that it will be a daunting political decision to make, especially since Trudeau was brought into office on several green policies including the pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars in clean energy technology investment and the scrapping of fossil fuel subsidies.