With Keystone XL cancelled, all eyes turn to Trans Mountain expansion battle

With pipeline construction costs already soaring, feds face construction safety concerns and determined opposition
Photo: Alex Jones
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The demise of the Keystone XL pipeline is turning the spotlight on the fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

On Monday, the House of Commons held an emergency debate on the recently cancelled cross-border Keystone XL project. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan pushed back against the idea of placing retaliatory sanctions on the U.S., while pivoting to Ottawa’s support for TMX.

The following day, around 100 organizations from a broad swath of sectors signed an open letter calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all federal cabinet ministers to kill TMX.

For Dr. Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, neither Keystone XL’s termination nor the federal government’s commitment to building TMX is surprising. In 2018, Ottawa purchased TMX for $4.5 billion, with the goal of eventually selling the pipeline back to the private sector.

“For the industry and also for the federal government, the cancellation of Keystone XL really puts pressure on getting the Trans Mountain expansion project built,” she said.

“The federal government owns the pipeline. They want to build it.”

Announced in 2012, the TMX project would twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline that runs from Alberta to the B.C. coast in order to deliver crude and refined oil to Asian markets. It would also nearly triple the pipeline’s delivery capacity to 890,000 barrels a day.

“The federal government's own agencies are saying that the math just doesn't add up anymore.”

Since its start, the project has faced intense legal and on-the-ground challenges from Indigenous land defenders and climate activists, forcing Ottawa to undertake more Indigenous consultations and environmental assessments. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada effectively ended the legal battle by dismissing an appeal from a number of B.C. First Nations over the government’s second approval of the project in 2019.

But the opposition outside the court continues.

“TMX will never be built," Chief Judy Wilson of Neskonlith First Nation said in a press release that accompanied the open letter.

“For the pipeline to proceed, all First Nations along the route would need to provide their consent — this will never happen.”

‘The math just doesn't add up anymore’

TMX opponents believe their case is only getting stronger.

“We have way more on board to win now than we did from the beginning,” said Rueben George, manager of the Tsleil-­Waututh Nation Sacred Trust. His nation was amongst the Indigenous communities appealing the second approval of TMX. “So it's not that I'm optimistic — I just know our strengths.”

The Canada team lead for 350.org, Cam Fenton, pointed out that U.S. President Joe Biden did not just cancel Keystone XL but also introduced a slew of climate actions in his first few days of office. Fenton believes this changing dynamic from Canada’s biggest crude oil consumer sends an economic and political message to Ottawa.

“Canada has gotten away with being able to sell ourselves as a climate leader in public, while also pushing pipelines,” he said.

“If you have someone who's not Donald Trump in office and someone who's really aggressively moving on climate actions, that's really going to put Justin Trudeau in a spot, and I think Trans Mountain could become a huge liability for him.”

The letter also emphasizes reports delivered last year by Canada’s own agencies that pose questions about TMX’s viability.

Released in November, a Canadian Energy Regulator report forecasts that neither Keystone XL nor TMX would be needed if Canada bolstered its climate policies. A month later, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer warned about TMX’s future profitability — particularly if the government adopts tougher climate policies to reach a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target.

“There's much less room in Canada's own carbon budget to continue expanding the oil sands and exporting that oil if we follow our own climate plans, which I would argue are already too weak,” said Kai Nagata, communications director of Dogwood.

“So it's not activists or progressive think tanks that are saying this. The federal government's own agencies are saying that the math just doesn't add up anymore.”

Nagata also raised concerns around conditions on TMX’s construction sites, which led to a worker’s death in October and a seriously injured worker in December 2020.

Both cases are currently being investigated. Trans Mountain said in a statement to Ricochet that it is still in the voluntary project-wide work stoppage, which started on Dec. 18.

When asked about this stand-down’s impact on TMX’s timeline and budget, the company told Ricochet it is “reviewing the impacts to our construction timeline and are working through strategies to mitigate delays.” But when asked to clarify when more definitive answers could be expected, the company said “there is no update or changes” from previously released figures.

In February 2020, Trans Mountain announced that it expected to complete TMX by the end of 2022 and at the cost of around $12.6 billion — a significant jump from a 2017 estimate of $7.4 billion.

And despite the government reports, the company believes the rationale for TMX remains “compelling.”

Nagata disagrees. “The more that [cost] climbs and the more that that gap in their priorities is highlighted, the more public support for the project will continue to crumble.”

No quick victory

The open letter said that instead of funding TMX, Canada should instead invest in a Just Transition Act to support workers’ and communities’ move away from fossil fuels — something the federal Liberals have previously promised.

“That will then force us to move into retraining programs and bridge programs, so that workers who worked in the fossil fuel industry can put those same skills to work,” Fenton said. “But it's also gonna require the government to look at how we actually turn the economy at the scale we need to.”

But the open letter’s signatories are unlikely to see a quick victory.

“The government is confident that the Trans Mountain project is a responsible investment for Canadians. The government is committed to investing every dollar earned in clean energy projects,” said Ian Cameron, press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Natural Resources, in a statement to Ricochet.

Looking at the fight around TMX, Harrison pointed out that organizers won’t be able to launch more legal obstacles. Instead, the big question for her is whether there will be large-scale civil disobedience comparable to the Wet'suwet'en solidarity blockades and protests that sprung up across Canada last year.

In the meantime — besides petitions, open letters and education campaigns — Indigenous land defenders like the Tiny House Warriors continue to lead on-the-ground resistance along the pipeline’s path and climate activists are tree-sitting in Burnaby. Ultimately, organizers say more work is needed.

“We obviously still have a lot of work to do to crank up the pressure,” Fenton said.

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