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Is Trans Mountain worth the risk?

The complex economic and environmental calculations behind Canada’s most controversial energy project

Environmental impact concerns are at the heart of opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project that has driven a political divide between B.C. and Alberta, and Ottawa, and has spawned two civil court actions aimed at halting the project.

Ranging from the threat of an oil spill in Burrard Inlet or along the pipeline route through B.C.’s Interior, to the impact of tanker traffic on an endangered marine species and sensitive coastal region, while doubling down on fossil fuel extraction of the Alberta tar sands project in the wake of growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change remain issues with which scientific research grapples. Not surprisingly, public, corporate, political and scientific opinions span a spectrum of stark differences.

Is it worth the risk?

The response to that question forms the framework around the debate about the economic merits of the $7.4-billion Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline twinning project versus the potential negative environmental impacts. Proponents on both sides of the debate point to the final outcome of this highly controversial issue as a legacy for Canada’s future that will take on added historic perspective significance 20 to 30 years from now.

The strong objections from the pro-environment supporters are many and diverse, while the federal government touts this project as being economically vital, and the focus of unprecedented environment impact assessment. Currently, two court cases pose the potential to delay or even derail the project, while the National Energy Board, responsible for the initial environment impact review, has since been stripped of those responsibilities for future energy projects by the Trudeau Liberal government.

The reality of the worst-case scenario — a massive oil spill at the Trans Mountain tank farm in Burnaby or in Vancouver’s harbour entrance to the Salish Sea – remains largely a potential calamity with unknown consequences, feeding the uncertainty felt by many if the pipeline expansion were to proceed.

Technology enhances safety

Kevin Hanna, director for the Centre of Environmental Assessment Research at UBC Okanagan, says the pipelines of today are very different from those built in the 1950s and ’60s which criss-cross in the thousands across North America. Hanna points out that the pipeline trench construction, the pipeline material, and the wrappings and coatings used to prevent leaks and other forms of damage have advanced significantly. Spills still happen, he acknowledges, but the technology and other mechanisms in place should ensure any accidents are minimal.

“It’s not to say major events don’t happen. Significant leaks can occur but they are uncommon. The only way to eliminate the risk to the environment entirely is to not build it,” Hanna said. He breaks down the environment pipeline debate into two components that impact people in B.C. depending on where they live.

One aspect is the pipeline transfer of the heavy crude bitumen extracted from the Alberta tar sands to Trans Mountain’s tank farm storage facility in Burnaby, and the other is the potential impact on West Coast marine life and shoreline by the increased oil tanker traffic and potential for an oil spill.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how bitumen reacts to salt or fresh water and how a spill can be cleaned up, so it’s important to understand the uncertainties or unknowns around that,” Hanna said. “But generally, most tanker related spillage occurs during loading and off-loading, which would be of most concern to Vancouver residents. The global shipping safety record of tankers over the last decade has been pretty good. Nobody wants to lose a load of oil as that means a lot of revenue is lost and that’s not good for them.

“As for managing the pipeline itself, major incidents in Canada are very rare. Doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t happen, it just means vigorous oversight is required for how the pipeline is operated and maintained over its lifespan.”

One advantage, he adds, is Trans Mountain is twinning an existing pipeline, meaning for the most part it follows an already established pipeline pathway. Hanna calls the pipeline debate a proxy war within Canada for moving away from dependence on fossil fuels to alternate cleaner energy, and the challenge of how to face the impact fossil fuels have on climate change.

“At the end of the day, Trans Mountain doesn’t operate a refinery, they operate a pipeline. They are trying to move a product from Point A to Point B. The question is does it have a financial future when other countries are shifting to new energy sources, like electricity, wind and solar?”

Hanna sees a risk in the federal government’s decision to purchase Kinder Morgan’s assets for $4.5 billion — an investment that some feel would be better spent developing opportunities to adapt to changing energy need shifts. “You are talking about something that is going to cost a lot of money at the end of the day and may turn out in 10 or 25 years to be unneeded. That becomes difficult to measure and quantify for investors and money lenders as it is for investing taxpayer dollars.”

Measuring potential hazards

Potentially at harm from a major coastal spill are southern resident killer whales — listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and are also considered an endangered species in Canada. Called “the Orcas of the Salish Sea,” there are only 76 currently in existence within B.C.’s coastal waters with a 70 per cent pregnancy failure rate over the last decade.

The killer whales are an integral aspect of a consolidated lawsuit against the project filed by seven First Nations applicants, the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Living Oceans Society. The lawsuit plaintiffs claim the NEB’s approval process was flawed and First Nations weren’t adequately consulted.

The arguments have been heard in the case and a decision is pending, likely within the next six to eight months.

Another court action has also been launched by B.C.’s provincial government, seeking the legal means to stop the pipeline expansion.

Misty McDuffee, wild salmon program director for Raincoast, says the pipeline project endangers what is left of the orcas on two levels. The first is the expanded pipeline through B.C.’s Interior, in particular the Thompson watershed, which is home to habitat and migration routes for chinook salmon, the diet staple for the killer whale population on the West Coast.

“The Thompson watershed hosts some of B.C.’s most economic and culturally important chinook populations. The steelhead population has already been listed as endangered and now they are looking at the same listing for chinook. And the new pipeline would cut right through many of those watershed tributaries,” McDuffee said. Often overlooked, she adds, are the realities of increased tanker traffic in Vancouver harbour on the endangered killer whale species.

“Even if nothing bad happened, there are no spills and everything works exactly according to plan. There is still the issue of increased tanker traffic. It raises the chance of these killer whales being hit by a larger vessel or the noise they create, disturbing their feeding habits. The southern killer whales rely on sound to detect fish and communicate with each other, just like we rely on eyesight.”

Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, says technology-created safeguards to prevent a pipeline environment disaster are always modified by human behaviour — bad decisions made in key moments. “Human error can trump every safeguard measure possible. When an instrument raises a problem, sometimes it is not believed by the operators,” she said, an issue illustrated by the reaction decision-making concerning the Trans Mountain’s Burnaby tank farm spill that saw 200,000 litres of crude oil spilled from a storage tank in 2009 and the Michigan spill of hundreds of thousands of crude oil from an Enbridge pipeline in 2010 near the Kalamazoo River.

Wristen said a quick cleanup response can be negated by the distance from the response teams and the dissipation of initial toxic gases released in the air which limit direct access to a spill site. And the toxic chemicals used to neutralize crude or refined oil spills can often pose equally harmful hazards for marine life.

“And what evidence we have indicates that the cleaning agents available to mediate a bitumen oil spill lose their effectiveness after 48 hours. You placate the public concern by doing something, but all you are really doing is adding more equally dangerous chemicals into the environment.”

She likens the pipelines built under Interior rivers and streams with fish habitats as “ticking time bombs.”

“It isn’t just the existence of the pipeline, it’s the construction impact itself and that causes erosion and loss of stream vegetation that is so important to spawning fish,” she said.

Jay Ritchlin, director general, Western Canada, for the David Suzuki Foundation, says the NEB environment impact assessment fails to address climate change issues, increased tanker traffic impact on endangered killer whales, and the consequences if a bitumen spill occurs in the ocean. “

We are clearly concerned that this pipeline allows for expansion of the (Alberta) oil sands project, and what impact is that going to have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the rates we agreed to under the Paris Accord,” Ritchlin said. “To meet those targets is placing an enormous squeeze on the rest of the economy to make up the difference. We may be sending the crude oil somewhere else, but ultimately it will end up creating more greenhouse gases globally.”

Ritchlin added the NEB move to avoid the endangered species issue was to draw a line on a map where responsibility for a spill would end. “Drawing up a boundary or control line doesn’t mean much for the killer whales. They don’t know artificial borders. They aren’t running some kind of internal GPS about that.”

He said disaster model scenarios carried out by the foundation revealed the destruction that an oil spill would have. “What is so amazing is how the wind and currents can spread an oil spill out in a matter of days. A spill in Burrard Inlet could see remnants end up everywhere from Salt Spring Island to up Indian Arm depending on the time of year. The ability on how to clean up something like that is still not there.”

He said bitumen’s reaction to water remains a scientific matter for debate. Some believe it disappears below the water surface in 24 hours or less, others estimate it might float on the water surface for up to three weeks. A federal report in 2013 found that because of glacial grit and plankton in the water, within three hours half of the dilbit will drop to the bottom of the sea. There would be no established way to stop it and no way to clean it up.

A 2012 study commissioned by Trans Mountain concluded after testing dilbit mixed with water in rectangular storage tanks outdoors for a 10-day period under simulated environmental conditions that all skimming devices were able to recover the spilled dilbit at all stages of the test period.

Non-mechanical spill countermeasures such as burning off surface floating oil, chemical dispersants and shoreline cleaning agents were found to be less effective within varying time degrees up to a maximum four-day weathering cycle. Limiting the science prospective is the relative absence of bitumen spills to draw on for research purposes. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has supervised more than 8,000 spills since 1970, but the Michigan pipeline break in 2010 was unlike anything they’d ever faced.

In a report filed just nine days before the Kalamazoo River spill, the EPA warned the proprietary nature of the diluents found in dilbit could complicate cleanup efforts in an environment impact assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport Alberta dilbit across six U.S. states to refineries in Texas.

Pipeline need defended

The Trans Mountain Expansion Project is the most thoroughly reviewed project in Canadian regulatory history, according to the company. “It has undergone unprecedented scrutiny for the last six years and set a new standard for review of energy projects in our country,” said a statement from Trans Mountain in response to questions submitted by Black Press. The statement maintains that current fossil fuel energy demands will not change over the next two or three decades, citing the oil needs of China and India to serve their rapidly growing populations.

“Oil producers have made significant 15- to 20-year commitments that add up to roughly 80 per cent of the capacity in the expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline.”

The company acknowledges that pipelines account for about one per cent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions, but also maintain that the expansion project will produce a legacy of carbon reduction projects to minimize the environment impact.

Quenching our thirst for oil

But while the demand for energy is growing, the proportion of oil and gas in the total amount of energy consumed is on the decline. “When you look at the growth in consumption, it quickly becomes clear that oil and gas will remain very important for the next few decades at least,” said Lisa Davis, chair and CEO of Siemens Corporation, in a World Economic Forum report. “Of course, we also need renewable energy sources. At least for the time being, we simply need everything we have. And that includes oil and gas.”

But after nearly a decade of riding Canada’s oil boom, drilling contractor Jennifer Turner found herself low on work, like thousands of other employees in the fossil fuel business left jobless following a plunge in oil prices. Today, she helps unemployed oil workers find jobs in the burgeoning solar power industry. She hopes it’s part of a broader transition to adopt more renewable energy, even though Canada has the world’s third-largest oil reserves.

“Workers risk getting left behind,” said Turner, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Iron and Earth based in Alberta. Turner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that skills like welding, machinery repair and project management can be transferred from the oil industry to solar power installation or other renewable enterprises if workers get the right support. Despite the Canadian government’s financial backing for fossil fuels, Turner believes the long-term outlook for renewables is more optimistic than for oil.

“We just need to avoid excluding workers,” she said.

This is the second story in a five-part series on the issues surrounding Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, investigating the history, science, Indigenous reaction, politics and economics of the controversial project.


Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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