The Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline has dominated news in the past few weeks. The public is divided over whether we should build this pipeline and allow Alberta oil sands output to increase, or whether it presents too much risk to BC’s rivers and coastal environments.
Many experts described the original project approval process as deeply flawed. The Liberals ignored their campaign promise of a new, improved process and instead sent a ministerial panel along the pipeline route in the summer of 2016.
Many communities and First Nations governments criticized this process as inadequate as well. However the panel did write a report that ended with a list of six clear questions for the government to answer before making a decision.
I think it would be useful to review those questions to see more clearly how we got into this quagmire.
- Can construction of a new Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments? Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr often proclaims “This pipeline will be built”, but I have never heard him say “We will meet our Paris targets.” For many pipeline opponents this is the crux of the problem.
- In the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy, how can policy-makers effectively assess projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline? Canada needs a national energy strategy that would answer broader questions such as: what role new pipelines would play in a world where world oil demand (according to the National Energy Board itself) will begin declining in 2019; how we might refine our oil resources for our own use rather than exporting bitumen and importing foreign oil on the Atlantic coast; and how we can create good jobs in renewable energy as the world shifts to a low carbon future.
- How might Cabinet square approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline with its commitment to reconciliation with First Nations and to the UNDRIP principles of “free, prior, and informed consent?” This is perhaps the key question that the federal government failed to answer before it approved the Trans Mountain Expansion. There is strong opposition to the project from many First Nations, and a number of lawsuits are in the courts arguing that the approval process did not involve proper consultation. If this is found to be the case (as it was in the Northern Gateway pipeline decision) it could delay the project another year or more.
- Given the changed economic and political circumstances, the perceived flaws in the NEB process, and also the criticism of the Ministerial Panel’s own review, how can Canada be confident in its assessment of the project’s economic rewards and risks? According to Nanos Research only 2% of Canadians have strong confidence in Canada’s energy regulation system, a fact that bears on the discontent seen on both sides of this debate.
- If approved, what route would best serve aquifer, municipal, aquatic and marine safety? Kinder Morgan has not yet asked the government for approval of the exact route for much of the pipeline; in many cases the old route will not be followed, especially in the Lower Mainland.
- How does federal policy define the terms “social license” and “Canadian public interest” and their inter-relationships? Through the election campaign, Justin Trudeau repeated the mantra “governments can grant permits, but only communities grant permission”. The federal government now finds itself in a very difficult situation, having to tell coastal British Columbians that the project is in the national interest.
It is now too late to answer these questions before Kinder Morgan’s self-imposed deadline of May 31, but we would have been in a much better situation had the government fully dealt with them before approving the Trans Mountain expansion project.