Emily Chu

Trans Mountain Pipeline: Cold Pipe, Hot Rhetoric

A closer look at the arguments over the Trans Mountain Pipeline

By Chris Turner

Have you heard about Trans Mountain? Well, of course you have. Everyone has. There’s been nothing but heated talk about the planned expansion of the pipeline system carrying bitumen and other oil products from Edmonton to the Port of Vancouver for more than a year now. So much talk, in fact, that it has acquired its own hashtag-ready acronym, TMX—just like KXL and J-Lo before it.

The rhetoric has only grown more raucous since the federal government decided last May to buy the project from Kinder Morgan, and more still after the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the government’s approval of the pipeline in August. Pipeline proponents’ position has been mostly straightforward. “The Trans Mountain expansion project is of vital interest to Canada and Canadians,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the press when the federal purchase plan was announced. “Our government’s position is clear: It must be built and it will be built.” Not a lot of ambiguity there. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, meanwhile, called the deal “a major step forward.” Then she told Albertans to “pick up those tools,” which was perhaps less clear, in that not all of us necessarily had pipeline construction equipment ready and waiting in our backyard sheds.

In any case, these were nowhere near the first words on TMX and they are far from the last. Conservative opponents of the federal Liberals and Alberta NDP were, in a shocking turn, unimpressed with the decision to buy TMX. But they found themselves in the maddening quandary of having to take a stance against a project they are even more rabidly in favour of. Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer called the deal an admission that Trudeau had “failed Canadian energy workers and investors,” while Alberta United Conservative leader Jason Kenney clarified that it was not just your common garden variety of failure but rather a “catastrophic failure” on the part of both Trudeau and Notley. He then outlined a multi-point plan that Trudeau should have enacted, which called for the feds to basically cease being a government in BC, hence presumably to let the coastal bastards freeze in the dark. BC premier John Horgan, meanwhile, said the only thing that mattered was “defending our coast …from a dilbit spill,” which he added would be—wait for it—“catastrophic.”

Ah, but these are just the bland statements of those milquetoasts in elected office. You’ve surely heard many other, much more colourful things about TMX from voices outside the stuffy halls of power. First Nations chiefs Stewart Phillip and Serge Simon, for example, wrote in The Globe and Mail that TMX was a choice between “collective survival or collective suicide.” In reference to the Notley–Trudeau stance that the pipeline approval was a trade-off for more ambitious climate change policies, David Suzuki called it “a crock of shit.” In more measured tones, the Parkland Institute said the project was built on “faulty assumptions,” and Environmental Defence drew up a list of 10 reasons to oppose TMX. Prominent environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, formerly of Notley’s Oil Sands Advisory Group, promised that “all hell is about to break loose in BC.”

So, you know, fair to say you’ve probably heard that opinions differ on TMX.

Opponents say TMX will create an intolerable increase in spill risk. In truth, the science regarding bitumen and spills is far less certain and damning.

As for Canadians in general, we’re actually much less strident in our TMX takes. As of May 2018, national support for the project (per Ipsos) sat around 56 per cent, including 55 per cent in BC; 84 per cent of Albertans say they’re for it. Abacus Data has for years tracked Canadian attitudes on building new pipelines, and opposition has remained virtually unchanged at around 22 per cent; the only significant shift from 2014 to today is that those who feel “positive” about pipelines has shrunk from 58 to 44 per cent, while those who feel “neutral” has grown from 20 to 36 per cent.

In general, then, most Canadians who aren’t totally against TMX might be for it, but they aren’t quite clear enough on the details to maintain a strong position. It’s perhaps understandable, amid all this inflated rhetoric, that so many Canadians are left wondering what the deal truly is with TMX. Is it environmental catastrophe or economic necessity? Is it vital infrastructure or looming disaster? Argle-bargle or fooferaw? So let’s try to sort some truth from the rhetoric.

From what you may have heard from the BC government, oil spills would appear to be the biggest deal about TMX. Virtually every time Premier Horgan addresses the topic, he reiterates some version of a line that appeared in a Maclean’s column he wrote the day after the federal government announced it was buying the project: “My priority is to defend BC’s interests from the economic and environmental costs of a spill.”

Elected in the spring of 2017 on a promise to use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop TMX, Horgan’s government would eventually sign on to a court case mounted by a Vancouver-area First Nation against the federal government for failing to properly consult with them before approving the pipeline. This case led to the Federal Court of Appeal decision in August 2018 that brought the pipeline project to a halt.

Horgan’s worry is shared by dozens of coastal First Nations, many environmental NGOs and a considerable portion of the BC public (about 37 per cent of whom oppose TMX under any and all circumstances). There are grounds for these concerns. Oil tankers have undoubtedly been known to spill, and pipelines surely do spring leaks. On the other hand, TMX represents a “twinning” of an existing pipeline—it follows the same route, and presumably presents no greater risk in and of itself than an existing pipeline more than a half century old.

The specific issue, opponents say, is that TMX will create a singularly intolerable increase in the risk of a much more damaging spill, because dilbit is uniquely difficult to clean up, with as-yet-undetermined properties, especially in salt water. Actually, that understates these concerns. The BC environmental group Dogwood says about dilbit: “It’s toxic, it’s explosive, and if it spills in water, you’re screwed.” Their release was entitled “Climate action won’t make bitumen float”—this because it’s become pretty much established truth in BC environmentalist circles that bitumen will sink too fast to be cleaned up.

In truth, the science regarding bitumen and spills is far less certain and damning. As many TMX critics note, a 2015 Royal Society of Canada survey noted major gaps in the research, in part because the science is in its infancy—dilbit hasn’t sloshed around in pipes and tanker hulls long enough to yield a body of conclusive evidence. Still, the research in the years since the Royal Society survey seems to indicate that dilbit does, in fact, float on salt water. (It also floats on freshwater at anything less than the very warm summer temperatures that caused it to sink during the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010.) By the estimate of one of the co-authors of a National Academy of Sciences review that is frequently (and erroneously) cited in support of the certainty of dilbit sinking, emergency crews would have up to three weeks to clean up a spill before waves and sediment began to break up the mat-like clumps dilbit forms on salt water. (It’s also worth noting that conventional crude disperses rapidly in a spill, which is why it’s so difficult to clean up.)

So the research doesn’t seem to indicate that dilbit poses a singularly high risk in the event of a spill. But what about the probability of a spill itself?

Going once again by Premier Horgan’s public statements, oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea would appear to be the next biggest deal after spills. Rare is the Horgan speech on the matter that doesn’t mention how TMX would mean “a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic.” On this point, Horgan is joined by virtually every environmental activist in the Lower Mainland and great hordes of TMX opponents on social media, all of them invoking that “7X increase” so often it’s a wonder it hasn’t become a hashtag of its own. The Federal Court of Appeal’s decision nullifying the pipeline’s approval also explicitly called for greater clarity on the pipeline’s potential risks to marine environments.

But as with so much of the TMX debate, this “seven-fold increase” is both basically true and yet not unequivocally a harbinger of disaster. First, the truth of it: It’s estimated that the 590,000 additional barrels of dilbit brought to Vancouver daily by TMX would boost Aframax-scale oil tanker traffic from the current 120 transits per year (roughly one tanker arriving and departing per week) to 816 per year (roughly one arriving and departing per day). The most basic math indicates this is an increase by a factor of 6.8. And on the face of it, that sounds like a significant, maybe even reckless change in the scale of shipping traffic—and in the risk of an oil spill.

That would only be the whole story, though, if oil tankers were a significant portion of the Port of Vancouver’s commercial shipping traffic (they are not), or if the Salish Sea’s ecological risk from commercial shipping came down exclusively to oil tankers loading in Vancouver (it does not). So here’s the bigger picture: Vancouver is by far Canada’s largest port, the port of call for more than half of the country’s container cargo and a major coal export site. About nine of what the industry calls “large commercial vessels” arrive there each day. So while TMX would mean a seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic, it would mean only an 11 per cent increase in overall large commercial vessel traffic.

While TMX would mean a seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic, it would mean only an 11 per cent increase in overall large commercial vessel traffic.

What’s more, Vancouver shares its shipping channels with the Port of Seattle—America’s fifth-largest port, also a major coal exporter and the hub of a region that is home to five oil refineries. All told, the Salish Sea sees approximately 16,000 “large commercial vessel transits” each year—that’s 43 per day—and there is significantly more oil tanker traffic in and out of Seattle than there would be in Vancouver even after TMX’s notorious seven-fold increase.

Again, there’s no denying TMX would significantly increase the volume of oil tanker traffic on the BC coast and, consequently, the risk of an oil spill that would be, as BC’s premier likes to put it, catastrophic. To assuage such concerns, the federal government launched a $1.5-billion enhancement of ocean protection and spill response measures in 2016. This new safety and regulatory regime—combined with a $150-million investment by industry in the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, including six new spill response bases and 43 new watercraft—is far more robust than the one under whose watch the original Trans Mountain pipeline’s oil tankers navigated the Salish Sea without catastrophic incident for 65 years. And for what it’s worth—quite a lot to TMX boosters, apparently next to nothing to opponents—the risk analysis conducted on behalf of Kinder Morgan by the Norwegian organization Det Norske Veritas (a world leader in maritime safety oversight) concluded that “the region is capable of safely accommodating the additional one laden crude oil tanker per day increase that will result from the Project.”

So that’s the deal with tanker traffic.

It’s a less common topic in the TMX discussion than traffic volumes and spills, but still you might have heard about the southern resident killer whales, a population of orcas that live year-round in the southern end of the Salish Sea. “There are 76 remaining southern resident killer whales who transit the Pacific coast,” Greenpeace Canada’s Mike Hudema wrote on Twitter. “This is no place for an oil tanker super highway.” As I say, Hudema is describing what is already one of the busiest shipping channels on the continent. This is pretty crucial, because too often the situation is portrayed the way Hudema has framed it—as a binary choice between saving an endangered species and permitting more oil tanker traffic.

Now, first, there is no downplaying the fate that has befallen this orca population—it is a tragedy. Their numbers are in decline, and it has been three years since a female in the pod has given birth to a healthy calf. This summer, a calf died just after its birth and its mother spent 17 days carrying her baby balanced on her nose. It’s hard to imagine a more brutal and heartbreaking image of environmental decline.

Still, this is the grim status of the southern resident killer whale population before TMX pipe has transported a single barrel of dilbit. One of the male orcas failed to return to the Salish Sea this year and is presumed dead, and the underfed females seem unable to give birth to healthy calves and nurse them properly. The pod also lost several members to aquatic theme parks a generation ago—just two adult males have fathered more than half the calves born in the last 30 years. Much is unknown about what’s reducing the orcas’ numbers and interfering with reproduction, but a certain and major contributor is the decline in stocks of their most important food—chinook salmon.

Another significant culprit in the pod’s decline is boat noise. Heavy commercial and recreational traffic disrupts the orcas’ communications and pushes them out of some of their favourite feeding grounds—Haro Strait off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, for example. In recent years new regulations have increased the distance whale-watching boats must keep from the orcas in an attempt to reduce stress. And for the past two summers the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has run a pilot program where commercial vessels slow their engines as they pass through Haro Strait in the summer when the orcas are feeding there.

Beyond all this, pollution of many kinds has both shrunk salmon populations and sent bioaccumulated toxins up the food chain to the orcas. The sources include mines and other industrial sites up the Fraser River, as well as Seattle’s wastewater treatment plant, which overflows and dumps raw sewage into the ecosystem with alarming frequency, and the City of Victoria, which has pumped its raw sewage into the Salish Sea for decades and has only now begun building a modern treatment plant.

Too often the situation is portrayed as a binary choice between saving an endangered species and permitting more oil tanker traffic.

There’s no question human activity is mostly to blame for the decline of the southern resident orcas. Another huge oil tanker traversing the Salish Sea each day will undoubtedly contribute to the noise problem, and a major spill would be disastrous for the entire region. But given that there is not even vague talk of reducing other kinds of shipping traffic in the region—the Port of Vancouver plans to expand from nine large commercial vessels per day to around 12 by 2026—is it fair to say that one daily tanker represents the decisive factor in the survival of the whales in an ecosystem under attack from all sides?

Though sometimes overshadowed by spill concerns in the rhetorical battle, greenhouse gas emissions are ultimately the biggest deal when it comes to TMX and the health of the planet. They are the reason pipeline debates loom so large in the national political discourse, and competing ideas about how to reduce them represent the fundamental division between the pro- and anti-TMX camps. Trudeau’s Liberals and Notley’s NDP see TMX as a necessary trade-off, a way to keep Canada’s oil and gas sector profitable during the long transition from fossil fuels and a means of staving off a political swing to the reactionary right like the one that recently seized Ontario. TMX opponents view the project as a guarantee of further expansion in the oil sands, ensuring spiking emissions and blown targets—what one academic called “a bet against the success of the Paris climate agreement.”

So what’s the deal with TMX and greenhouse gas emissions? The most basic numbers, though sometimes disputed, are well established. The ones the National Energy Board used in its approval of the pipeline suggest that without new pipelines for bitumen, Canada could reduce its overall emissions by an additional 10–11 megatonnes (Mt). In 2016 Canada’s emissions were 704 Mt, so stopping TMX could be worth about a 1.5 per cent reduction (though this is being generous, because the NEB calculation included potential emissions from other proposed pipelines such as Enbridge’s Line 3 project and Keystone XL).

The logic of opposition to TMX on climate grounds, then, is simple enough: If the goal is to slash emissions as much as possible, wherever possible, then why not cut an easy 1.5 per cent by simply not building any new oil sands infrastructure—this presumably as a necessary first step toward phasing out oil sands production entirely?

The counter-argument takes issue with the assumption of ease and the necessity of phasing out. In the absence of TMX, for starters, oil sands operators don’t immediately cut capital budgets or reduce production by the number of barrels they’d planned to ship down the pipeline. An estimated 620,000 barrels per day of new oil sands production is scheduled to come online by 2020, and it’s not contingent on TMX being built—it will simply find other routes to market, either by other pipelines or by rail.

And even if stopping TMX were able to cut those 10–11 Mt, would this be a particularly efficient way to reduce emissions? Economist Trevor Tombe of the University of Calgary calculated the total cost of reducing oil sands production by 450,000 barrels per day (the amount that would produce an 11 Mt reduction) and found that it would mean $18-billion in losses. This equates to a cost of between $1,500 and $2,000 per tonne of carbon dioxide reduced—more than 60 times the current cost per tonne under Alberta’s carbon tax. This, to use a technical term, is super-duper inefficient.

There’s also a presumption built into opposing TMX on climate grounds, which is that stopping the project is the first of many decisive and increasingly rapid steps toward hitting Paris targets and building a low-carbon economy in Canada and around the world. If any pipeline opponent has drawn up a political map of that strategy, however, they’ve kept it well hidden. The presumption underlying Trudeau’s and Notley’s support for the project is that if TMX isn’t built, it could well lead to conservative governments before long in Edmonton, Ottawa, even Victoria—and that such a swing might well set back any meaningful action at all on climate change by a decade or more. The fragile, imperfect consensus that led to Canada’s Paris targets and coordinated provincial government action on climate change, after all, took more than two decades and the freakish coincidence of centrist or left-leaning governments in every province other than Saskatchewan. Canada may not see such agreement on an issue as complex and contentious as climate change for a very long time. Better, then—the argument goes—to do everything possible to build momentum now, even if it means lending full support to a pipeline and losing friends among the urgent-climate-action-yesterday crowd.

The economics of TMX are a very big deal for Trudeau and Notley. Their support of the project is predicated not just on keeping their climate consensus together but on the belief that long-term climate action needs a profitable oil and gas sector to prop up the Canadian economy—and thus their political fortunes—for the foreseeable future. And the profitability of Canada’s oil sector, so the argument goes, gets a big boost from TMX.

There’s some evidence to back this assertion. As the TMX debate raged last winter, a supply glut caused the price differential between Alberta bitumen and the West Texas Intermediate crude benchmark to soar to as much as $30 per barrel—a substantial loss of both industry revenue and of taxes and royalties. (At $25 per barrel, the differential is estimated to cost the industry $20-million per day; by the fall of 2018, the differential had surged as high as $60.) One of the major selling points for TMX is that it expands opportunities to ship Alberta’s oil to markets where this discount is much less onerous, because it avoids supply bottlenecks and reduces shipping costs overall. As for the general health of the economy, UBC economist Kevin Milligan looked at median earnings across Canada from 2000 to 2015 and concluded that “nothing has contributed more than natural resources to buttressing the Canadian middle class against the rapidly changing global economy of the 21st century”—and no piece of that resource economy is bigger than oil and gas.

So oil production is a major contributor to Canada’s economic health, and industry and government proponents are certain TMX makes a vital industry more profitable. In singing its praises, however, they’re sometimes guilty of some overzealousness. As the Parkland Institute has pointed out, the Alberta government tends to exaggerate the pipeline’s economic benefits—claiming, for example, that it will create 15,000 jobs, when even Kinder Morgan only suggested the construction phase could generate 5,000.

In the wake of the federal government’s decision to purchase the project, skepticism has occasionally ballooned into something verging on conspiracy theory. You may have heard the assertion, for example, that there is “no business case” for TMX—this claim appears to have first been made in the National Observer and was later repeated by federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. This would come as news to the oil sands operators suffering from recurring pipeline bottlenecks, paying premiums to ship by rail, continuing to expand production, and agreeing to 20-year guaranteed contracts to gain access to TMX’s capacity. Another common argument—a favourite of Premier Horgan’s—that all the profit from TMX went to “Texas boardrooms,” lost its punch once ownership switched from Kinder Morgan to the Canadian taxpayer.

The Indigenous people involved have been treated as less than equal partners for so long that even the appearance of equality now is highly suspect.

You’ve probably heard a lot about Indigenous rights when it comes to TMX. For the most part, First Nations leaders have appeared as part of the strident opposition—for example, Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, telling reporters he was in full opposition to “this very toxic, dangerous, dirty oil pipeline” as he was arrested at a protest in Burnaby. And there’s no question that Indigenous people down the length of the pipeline and across Canada have been visible and vocal in their dissent. The government’s failure to properly consult with First Nations was one of the two reasons the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the pipeline’s approval.

The full story, though—as with all things TMX—is slightly more complex. All told, TMX passes through or near the traditional territory of more than 130 First Nations and crosses the officially designated reserve lands of 10. Kinder Morgan was obliged to consult with all of those First Nations as part of the pipeline approval process. In all, 43 First Nations—including all 10 whose reserve land is traversed by the pipeline—signed mutual benefit agreements.

Given that the pipeline mostly follows an established right of way, the legal issues are simpler for TMX than for other proposed pipelines, notwithstanding the Federal Court’s August ruling. Still, the laws governing relations between First Nations and the federal government are in flux and hotly contested, and the letter of the law is nowhere near enough as far as many Indigenous people are concerned. Some First Nations—most visibly in the Metro Vancouver area, such as the Squamish and the Tsleil-Waututh—are opposed to the pipeline under any and all circumstances. Others have made pipeline deals despite significant opposition among their membership or because no other option seemed viable. “We just figure we have a better opportunity sitting at the table than protesting,” Wayne Sparrow, chief of the Vancouver-area Musqueam Indian Band, told Maclean’s. Still others, particularly in Alberta, are pipeline boosters—a handful of First Nations in the Fort McMurray area, including the Athabasca Chipewyan, often vocal in its criticism of oil sands development, have expressed interest in buying a direct equity stake in the project.

Like so many issues in pipeline politics, it’s possible to shape this range of opinions to suit almost any agenda and predetermined position. And as with any Indigenous rights issue, it’s a fair assumption that the Indigenous people involved have been treated as less than equal partners for so long that even the appearance of equality now is highly suspect. On the other hand, these are questions ultimately for high courts and intergovernmental deliberations, and it’s inevitably messy trying to litigate them via pipeline approval.

On balance, TMX represents a net negative for the planet’s health. It will amplify spill risks down its length and in the Salish Sea, marginally increase noise pollution in shipping channels, and possibly add a few megatonnes to Canada’s already oversized carbon footprint. It doesn’t create any of these problems on its own, but it exacerbates all of them. To make a case for it, then, you’d need a damn good reason. Notley and Trudeau believe they have one—building a solid long-term policy platform for climate change action. Both the federal and Alberta governments (along with every other province and territory other than Saskatchewan) had the political will in 2015 and 2016 to bring in robust climate plans. But Notley and Trudeau both worked under the understanding that their support couldn’t endure open warfare with the oil and gas industry or the Alberta public in general. So they threw their support unequivocally behind TMX—a reassurance to the oil patch that climate plans didn’t mean an attack on their business.

This is the trade-off that everyone from Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips to the climate policy wonks at Natural Resources Canada and the Prime Minister’s Office believe is the only way forward. But the rancour caused by TMX has already seriously damaged the wobbly consensus needed to advance Notley’s and Trudeau’s respective climate plans. Their bet is that keeping the pipeline on track will save those plans. Their understanding, in any case, is that without the project, the consensus would have unquestionably collapsed entirely, ensuring many more years of inaction on climate change. That TMX wasn’t a great bet, just the least bad one on offer.

Chris Turner’s latest book, The Patch (Simon & Schuster), won the 2018 National Business Book Award. His bestselling books The Geography of Hope and The Great Leap shed light on the global sustainability movement. A prolific speaker and magazine writer, he lives in Calgary.


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