Transmountain Pipeline Approved Despite Lack of Proven Clean Up Protocols
There’s no proven way to clean up the toxic diluted bitumen that will travel through Kinder Morgan’s pipeline despite B.C. government claims of ‘world-class oil spill response,’ says DeSmogBlog’s Emma Gilchrist
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
Late in 2016 the Canadian Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the $6.8 billion expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline System. This pipeline system runs from the City of Edmonton in Northern Alberta through Canada’s western-most province, British Columbia, to the City of Burnaby on the west coast of Canada. The project is intended to increase dramatically the capacity of the existing pipeline system to transport bitumen from Canada’s tar sands in Northern Alberta to the west coast where it is expected to be exported by tankers to Asian markets. The 1,150 kilometer pipeline project will increase the capacity of existing infrastructure to 890,000 barrels per day, up from 300,000 barrels per day, and if completed the trans mountain project is expected to increase oil tanker traffic on the west coast by a factor of seven.
Now with us to discuss this project is Emma Gilchrist. Emma is Executive Director of DeSmog Canada, a non-profit online news magazine dedicated to cutting through the spin on energy and environment. DeSmog’s reporting has sparked coverage by the New York Times, Globe and Mail and CBC News. Thanks for joining us today, Emma.
EMMA GILCHRIST: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So I’d like to start with Prime Minister Trudeau’s announcement that he was approving the Trans Mountain pipeline. He stated, “If I thought this project was unsafe for the B.C. coast I would reject it.”
Similarly, the British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, also of the provincial Liberal Party, has approved this pipeline expansion. And before doing so, she said that one of the requirements for her approval was safeguards for “world-class” marine and land oil spill response. How do you respond to the Prime Minister’s and Premier’s claim that this project is safe for the coast of British Columbia and the people of British Columbia?
EMMA GILCHRIST: I think what’s really interesting about this story is how many times the government have changed their tune on this project — in particular the Province of B.C. So, almost exactly a year ago, the Province of British Columbia actually filed a final argument on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline that argued that the project wasn’t safe because of the oil spill risk. And yet, now, a year later, they’re arguing that it is safe because of this so-called world-leading oil spill response.
The thing is, is that “world-leading oil spill response” really doesn’t mean anything. There’s simply no proven way to clean up a large oil spill in the ocean. And, on top of that, the substance that would be transported through Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain is called diluted bitumen, which is basically the tar sands oil diluted with a material to make it flow through a pipeline and that oil actually sinks when it hits the water, most of the time. So there’s no proven way whatsoever to clean up this type of material in the ocean. So what you’re really seeing is essentially a lot of spin.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Is there, in fact, an actual instance in which a substantial spill of diluted bitumen was successfully cleaned up?
EMMA GILCHRIST: No. One of the only good examples we have to look to for a diluted bitumen spill is in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. And that spill was from an Enbridge pipeline and it was disastrous. Several years later, the cleanup, so far as I understand it, is still not truly complete. And, you know, that material caused lots of illness in the community, it lost people’s jobs and homes, it’s very toxic when it hits the water and it sank to the bottom of that river and people were still finding it at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River several years after the spill.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now this pipeline, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, if constructed, the expansion will cross, in part, territory belonging to the Tsliel-Waututh Nation on the western coast of B.C. in the Vancouver area. And a spokesperson for Tsliel-Waututh stated when Trudeau announced the approval of the expansion, that it was a big mistake and that the project would face a court challenge. What would you expect the legal basis of any such court challenges to be and where do these legal proceedings currently stand, if any have been commenced?
EMMA GILCHRIST: Yeah, so in Canada, First Nations hold very strong rights to their land, in particular, in British Columbia where a lot of First Nations have never signed treaties. So they have unceded land rights that essentially the Supreme Courts end up deciding on over and over again. And what we’ve seen recently, with the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which was a proposal on Northern B.C., is ultimately the courts ruled that the B.C. government hadn’t done its job in terms of consulting First Nations on that pipeline and the approval was overturned.
So I think you’re going to see some very serious challenges to this project from First Nations, in particular the Tseil-Waututh First Nation which is right on the coastline there. And it’s really hard to say which way they’re going to go, but they certainly have a very strong legal basis to argue that there is an infringement of their constitutional rights.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: You know, I would like to talk to you a little bit about the overall record so far of the Trudeau Government on the climate change file.
In the 2015 election, which brought Justin Trudeau’s government to power, his party, the Liberal Party said, “Climate change is an immediate and significant threat to our communities and our economy. We will instead partner with the Provincial and Territorial leaders to develop real climate change solutions consistent with our international obligations to protect the planet, all while growing our economy.”
And late last year, Trudeau made two other pipeline announcements in addition to the Trans Mountain Pipeline announcement. First, he announced his government’s approval of Enbridge’s $7.5 billion Line 3 pipeline replacement project, which is to run from Hardisty, Alberta, through Neche, North Dakota, to Superior, Wisconsin. And he announced that he would not allow the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline which would have run from Northern Alberta to the Northern coast of British Columbia.
And, literally within the last several hours, the newly inaugurated President Trump signed an executive order relating to Keystone XL which appears to have revived the Keystone Project which Obama had apparently killed. And one of the ministers of the Trudeau government said — this was literally minutes ago — that he “warmly welcomed this decision by the Trump administration.”
When you look at the whole picture, the reaction to the revival of Keystone XL, the approval of Line 3, the rejection of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the approval of Kinder Morgan, do you think that this government is anywhere near to keeping the promise that it made to Canadians in the 2015 election about dealing responsibly with the climate crisis?
EMMA GILCHRIST: No, it’s not. It’s definitely been a bit of a mixed bag, which makes it confusing for people because, yes, Trudeau did reject Enbridge Northern Gateway. Trudeau has also expended a lot of political capital on implementing a country- wide price on carbon, which is a really important move and something that wasn’t even imaginable five years ago. So he has done some good things. But what he’s trying to do is have his cake and eat it too.
So, meantime, he has approved the pipelines that you just mentioned, he also approved a giant liquefied natural gas project on B.C.’s Northwest coast, which will be the single largest source of emissions in all of British Columbia, and single-handedly make it impossible to meet our emissions targets.
So, no, he isn’t ensuring that we meet those international commitments. He talks a good talk about it and he has done some good things but, ultimately, these pipelines really undermine those statements.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, when the approval of Trans Mountain was announced, the Alberta provincial government of Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party applauded Trudeau’s approval of Line 3 and Trans Mountain. And she said this, “Our province has been brutally slammed by the collapse in commodity prices. It has been a long, dark night for the people of Alberta as a result. Today, we are finally seeing some morning light, we are given a chance to break our landlock. We’re getting a chance to sell to China and other markets at better prices.”
How would you respond to arguments such as those made by Premier Notley that this is really essential to the economic vitality of Alberta at a time when the province has taken a beating as a result from the plunge in the price of oil?
EMMA GILCHRIST: Well, first of all, I can see why she makes statements like that — because she’s a politician and she needs to be popular. And it’s a very populist statement. I’m actually from Alberta. I grew up in Northern Alberta in the oil patch and so I do definitely have sympathy for the people who are hurting during the downturn. But my concern would be that Alberta has problems and its boom and bust economy has been created by putting all of its eggs in one basket — and that is the oil and gas industry. And there’s no two ways about it, the world is moving to a lower carbon future and Alberta is going to continue to hurt if it puts all of its eggs in that same basket again.
So Alberta is doing some really great things right now to begin to diversify its economy and I think the province needs to do more of that if it doesn’t want its citizens to be in this position again in another 10 or 20 years. I mean, this has been a cycle that’s happened in Alberta over and over again and I’d hate to see it happen again.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Just if you’d give us bit of a flavor of some of the things it’s doing in order to diversify its economy at long last.
EMMA GILCHRIST: Yeah. So one of the things that Alberta has done is it has promised to phase out coal by 2030 and to have 30% renewables. And so, that’s creating all sorts of renewable energy opportunities, for instance. So that’s really great. They’ve started looking at ways to deal with their abandoned wells, which have geothermal potential.
So there’s lots of things that they are doing and more that they can be doing that helps get people back to work. And, you know, the cool thing about Alberta is there’s a lot of skilled trades people there who have the skills that are needed in a renewable energy economy. And Alberta has a huge opportunity to tap into that right now.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, a couple of weeks ago the New York Times did an exposé on British Columbia’s campaign finance rules and it referred to B.C. as the “Wild West of campaign finance” in Canada because the province allows unlimited donations from both individuals and corporations. This was something that was much talked about in Canada and, particularly in British Columbia, well before the New York Times exposé but it’s interesting how a major foreign newspaper paying attention to the issue sort of focuses public attention on the issue in this country. And it certainly caused quite a stir.
I’m wondering what do we know about the campaign contributions from the fossil fuels industry to Christy Clark’s Liberal Party and how do you think those contributions might be affecting the relatively pro fossil fuels policies of the Christy Clark government in B.C.?
EMMA CHILCHRIST: Yeah, I mean, the fossil fuel industry is making huge contributions to Christy Clark. Kinder Morgan, pipeline associations and pipeline companies have made over $700,000 in donations to the B.C. Liberals, which is Clark’s party. And up until Friday, Premier Christy Clark was receiving a $50,000 stipend directly from her party from those donations, which was something that the New York Times reporter basically compared to bribery and said, “Look, that wouldn’t even be allowed in the States.” So, on Friday, she actually announced that she won’t take that $50,000 stipend anymore, which is a move in the right direction — however, B.C. is still allowing corporate donations, which the country of Canada in general, doesn’t allow. And, yeah, that allows private companies to have undue influence over politics. It’s not a level playing field, not everybody can pay $5,000 to attend a special dinner or to make a donation to stay in the B.C. Liberals’ good books.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: When one considers all of these things — the campaign finance laxity in British Columbia, the approval of these projects both at the provincial and federal level — I’m curious to know what is your sense of the feeling on the ground in British Columbia? It has a very vibrant environmental movement, climate justice movement — do you think people on the ground are feeling disheartened by this, do you think they’re feeling invigorated by it? How do you think they’re going to respond in particular to the approval both provincially and federally of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline?
EMMA GILCHRIST: I think people will respond very powerfully to that approval. Because, while there has been some disheartening news of late, there’s also been a fair amount of good news. For instance, finally the killing of Enbridge Northern Gateway. That was a pipeline that really was kind of the beginning of all these pipeline fights. And it had been going on for over 10 years. And so that was a huge victory. So, really, pipeline activists in British Columbia are coming off an enormous historic victory and now they’re moving on to doing what they can to stop Kinder Morgan. I certainly don’t think the wind has been taken out of anybody’s sails.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ll certainly be following this story closely, particularly as the Trudeau Government and the Christy Clark Government attempt to implement their decisions to approve this pipeline. And thank you for joining us today.
EMMA GILCHRIST: My pleasure.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News.