The overpass trembled as cars sped past, and the noise of the traffic roared as several protestors stood on the sidewalk with “STOP TMX” banners. They waved them at passing vehicles, and those on the Trans-Canada Highway beneath them.

The protestors were lined up on the side of Brunette Avenue in Burnaby, B.C., to demonstrate against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX). Many, if not most, of the passing drivers honked supportively or flashed a thumbs-up.

Among the group assembled on Aug. 25 was Maureen Curran, Burnaby South candidate for the Green Party of Canada. She’s also a professor at Simon Fraser University and a coordinator with Protect the Planet Stop TMX (PPST), an organization trying to stop TMX using creative non-violent direct action.

While other candidates are busy campaigning for votes, Curran is focused on protests. She told Ricochet she is willing to sacrifice her political career to make a change. “We are experiencing another record-breaking summer with devastating heat and wildfires. Completing this pipeline will only bring more death and destruction,” she said.

The pipeline expansion will contribute to the development of the Alberta oil sands, which has been described as “the world’s most destructive oil operation.” The existing Trans Mountain Pipeline has reported more than 80 oil spills to the Canada Energy Regulator since 1961

The pipeline extension is opposed by most Burnaby residents, but it is still being pushed forward by the federal government. The project was bought by the feds in 2018 to keep it from being cancelled, and its $16-billion price tag is now being footed by taxpayers. The expansion will triple the flow of diluted bitumen, light crude oil and other fuels from Alberta to the Westridge Terminal in Burnaby.

“We know Canada is a global carbon bomb,” said Amy Janzwood, a postdoctoral research fellow in political science at the University of British Columbia. Recent research shows Canada’s anticipated oil and gas production from 2021 to 2050 would exhaust about 16 per cent of the world’s remaining carbon budget. “Building new fossil fuel infrastructure, like this mega oil sands pipeline that locks in fossil fuel expansion, is wildly inconsistent with reducing our emissions.”

Overpass protext against the TMX pipeline in Burnaby. August 25, 2021
Chen Zhou

One year in a treetop

Through the use of creative tactics — including aerial camps and a treehouse perched amid Burnaby’s treetops that is occupied by activists — the PPST has thwarted TMX-related tree cutting and habitat destruction in the area for over a year.

Curran is among the dozens of tree-sitters who have spent days and nights enjoying the view from the treetop cabin. She describes it as an adventure, and says she has seen lightning strike nearby trees, endured temperatures of −10 C wearing a ski suit and drinking lots of tea, and made it through a windstorm where the tree’s shaking was so violent it made her feel seasick.

“Even though construction has been stalled near our tree-sit, the fight is far from over. We are not quitting until TMX packs up and goes home,” states the PPST website.

Curran is also part of a group that regularly protests outside the office of longtime Liberal MP Terry Beech, who represents Burnaby North—Seymour.

Beech told Ricochet “it’s interesting because I’m probably the most protested MP in the country, and they’re protesting the person that voted against the project instead of the people that voted for it.”

The original Trans Mountain pipeline goes right through the front yard of Beech’s house. He can hear the construction of the expansion project from home.

He said he spent an enormous amount of time going to individual homes and addressing residents’ concerns. “I take them very seriously. I take them to Ottawa and directly to Trans Mountain.”

He also said he visited the PPST’s tree-sit with his daughter and had a good conversation with Tim Takaro, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and one of the earliest tree-sitters.

However, Takaro is not satisfied with Beech. “He has flip-flopped on this. He did vote against the TMX once, but there are several other votes, and he actually voted in favour of it. He supported the cabinet position to build the pipeline. He is also not speaking against it at the moment.”

Takaro also noted that the MP was recently asked several times to sign a pledge to stop TMX construction. He refused.

The Liberal government always promises to meet future targets but has never met any current climate target, observed Takaro. “We want them to do something real, right now.”

After spending 10 years writing reports and setting up projects with the government in what he describes as a failed attempt to get action on the climate crisis, Takaro decided that the only practical tactic left was non-violent civil disobedience.

He hopes the project will succumb to pressure and eventually be cancelled, noting it’s now “way behind schedule and way over budget.” If future conflicts intensify, he said, they can take inspiration from the protesters in Fairy Creek protecting old-growth trees.

“You never know what will work. When we started that protest, we had no idea that the hummingbird nest [would] be able to delay it for three months.”

In one area of the TMX construction zone, where a large number of hummingbird nests were discovered, opponents managed to halt the project by making local conservation authorities aware of the nests and the threat of construction.

Curran also holds out hope of stopping the project. “When the Berlin Wall came down, it surprised everybody. And yet looking back, you can see the things that led to it, and those kinds of changes sometimes happen very quickly.”

Some environmental and Indigenous groups have actively contacted insurance companies, asking them to stop insuring TMX. Trans Mountain has responded by trying to keep the insurers’ identities secret. The company did not respond to any of Ricochet’s interview requests or emailed questions.

“The people with money never have to pay the price, while other people are going to suffer when there’s a spill or an accident or just from the pollution,” said Curran. She thinks those organizations have done a fantastic job by taking the fight right to the boardrooms and making those who sit in their comfortable little leather chairs uncomfortable.

Janzwood said the financial sector has systematically undervalued the risk of mega fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Still, activists are finding new opportunities to challenge the often complex and opaque financial arrangements for pipelines like TMX, and they have had some success targeting insurance providers.

“Even though Trans Mountain and our federal energy regulator have tried to keep insurers a secret, insurers are waking up to the risk profile of this project, which could have a material impact on the project.”

Tree-sit in Burnaby blocking the path of the TMX pipeline
Chen Zhou

Who’s leading on climate?

Neither the Liberal government nor the Conservative opposition have expressed any qualms about the pipeline expansion, while the Greens have remained staunchly opposed. The NDP have been highly critical of the pipeline project, and the Trudeau government’s decision to purchase it, but have declined to answer questions about whether they would cancel the project.

Beech told Ricochet that during the Trans Mountain hearings in 2016, only two MPs decided to represent their respective communities to the review panel. “That was myself and Elizabeth May.”

“One of the primary tools that a Member of Parliament has is to represent our community when the decision is being made,” he said.

“What I find unfortunate is, where were the NDP MPs? Especially those who are promising or have promised to take action only after the decision was made. Not a single NDP MP showed up in the hearings to listen to our community or present our concerns.”

In 2017, a vote in the House of Commons on the project resulted in 252 in favour and 51 against. Beech and a colleague were the only Liberals to vote against the project.

During a virtual meeting of candidates for Burnaby North—Seymour last week, NDP candidate Jim Hanson argued that his party would cancel the TMX pipeline. Beech pointed out that NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has never committed to doing so.

Instead of answering questions from Ricochet, Mike McKinnon, B.C. communications director for Jagmeet Singh and the NDP, replied with a link to a video of Singh speaking in Winnipeg. In the video, Singh stressed he has always opposed the expansion project. Then he said, “Once we form a government, we will take a look at it and make the best decision.”

Other media outlets have also struggled to get a straight answer from the NDP leader on his plans for the pipeline if elected, and Singh did not answer the question when it was asked directly in both French and English televised debates this week

“Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole have shown which side they are on. They team up to help the fossil fuel industry, and they will continue to protect the profits of Big Oil. Jagmeet Singh and the NDP will fight climate change like the emergency it is,” Hanson said in response to emailed questions from Ricochet. He said he stands with Singh in opposition to TMX, but didn’t clarify whether the NDP leader would commit to cancelling the project if elected.

Curran said the federal and provincial NDP have some very passionate, strong climate leaders in their caucus, but they don’t have political clout. When they are given a chance to work towards a greener future, such as saving the old-growth trees in Fairy Creek, they make too many compromises.

“I don’t trust the NDP to follow through on its promises,” she said. “In the last couple of years, the NDP has been part of a minority government. That means they have some influence, and they’ve used it in a few spots. But climate change can’t be left till later, can’t fall off the list of priorities. It has to be at the top, or we’re toasted.”

She is particularly critical of Singh. “As a party leader, he has not shown climate leadership. He leaves it to Peter Julian and Avi Lewis and the other strong climate leaders in his party to take that over as their portfolio.”

Curran reached out to Singh repeatedly to seek his support for PPST, and asked him to sign a pledge to cancel the TMX project. When other means of communication failed, she even visited his office in Burnaby, but was unable to reach him. Now she’s running against the NDP leader in his riding of Burnaby South.

Curran thinks the role of the Green Party in this federal election is pushing other parties in the right direction. “And that is exactly why I’m running.”

While other sectors of Canada’s economy have been reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, the fossil fuel industry has increased theirs, cancelling much of the good work being done to make building, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture more sustainable and energy-efficient.

Safety concerns still rising

In purchasing and expanding TMX, the Liberals argued that current pipelines lack the capacity to transport Canada’s fossil fuels to market. This, they argued, meant that much of the oil produced here needed to be moved by road or rail, methods that were less safe and produced higher carbon emissions.

If a leak in the pipeline should occur, as it has so often in the past, Beech is confident that legislation passed by his government will ensure those who do the pollution pay for the clean-up.

But Curran said the idea that trains are not as safe as pipelines is simplistic, pointing to the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, when 47 people were killed by a devastating explosion and fire.

“That was a massive tragedy. But it was because the railway was operating unsafely. They were using cars that had been inspected and deemed not worth using anymore. How do we know people are not going to make the same decisions with pipelines? They may also not follow the safety rules or keep up the maintenance in order to save money.”

The final destination of the pipeline, a tank farm on Burnaby Mountain, is also a critical safety concern. The expansion project will double the number of tanks and leave them more tightly spaced. Since the original project was built over 70 years ago, a university, an elementary school, and a residential community have been established around that area.

In a statement, Simon Fraser University president Joy Johnson said there are significant safety concerns about the risk of fire, release of toxic emissions, and potential blockage of the only evacuation route from the university’s Burnaby campus in the event of a fire or tank explosion at the tank farm.

Beech said the new tanks are being built to a higher standard, the previous ones will be upgraded, and firefighting capacity that used to be potentially hours away will be right next to the facility.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Beech announced that his government would fund a new firefighting facility on Burnaby Mountain right next to the tank farm. “If you support me, I will work with the Burnaby fire department to make sure that tank farm is safer than it was when it was originally constructed.”

Do we need TMX?

According to the federal government, TMX will create thousands of good, middle-class jobs, unlock new global markets to get a fair price for Canadian oil, generate billions in revenues each year to help fund clean energy solutions and help advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, including through economic opportunity.

The Liberals also see the interest expressed by some Indigenous groups in having a stake in TMX as evidence of the project’s profitability.

“It struck me as a concern that Indigenous Nations would be accepting a deal that they might not necessarily agree with, because they didn’t want to miss out on the financial compensation,” Beech said. While more economically advantaged Indigenous communities are standing opposed to the project, more impoverished communities cannot afford to miss out on the potential economic benefits being offered in exchange for their support.

The federal government does not intend to maintain ownership of the pipeline in the long term. And Beech fully expects that it will be an Indigenous group that will end up owning the project.

In 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that every incremental tax dollar generated from this project would be dedicated to a clean energy transition fund.

“The whole argument makes zero sense to anyone,” said Curran. She finds it bizarre that the Liberals keep insisting on the same “lies” after the release of the latest IPCC report.

TMX is unlikely to be profitable, she said. “We know that fossil fuels are not showing signs of having a strong future economically, and heavy oil is such a crappy product. It’s a low-quality oil that most countries don’t want because refineries [for heavy crude] are so expensive and so difficult to run, and they require a lot of water. So there’s not a lot of demand worldwide.”

Janzwood also finds the government’s statements dangerously misleading. As the government’s own analysis reveals, the public risks losing a significant amount of money on the project.

Last November, Canada’s energy regulator confirmed that TMX isn’t needed, and is incompatible with climate action domestically and globally. Taxpayers have already paid over $4 billion for the expansion, with billions more to go.

Curran said that the immense amount of money being spent on TMX could be used on other vital projects. “Like building wind and solar farms, doing retrofits of buildings, making forests less susceptible to fires, building more public transit. All of those things are infrastructure projects not just of value to our economy, but to our lives and giving us a better chance of making that 1.5 C Paris goal.”

Beech argues it’s all part of the Liberals’ climate plan though, noting the federal government has invested over $100 billion in fighting climate change. “The prime minister has made the argument that as long as we’re in this transition period, we need to make sure that we get maximum value for our natural resources.”

Janzwood thinks there was significant political pressure from Alberta that coloured the government’s motivations for buying the pipeline, with its purchase being a compromise made by the Trudeau government to help alleviate the struggles of the oil industry.

However, buying the pipeline has not and will not provide the relief or certainty that oil workers desperately need, she said. In the last year, a profound shift has occurred globally, and the International Energy Agency has said there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in their net-zero pathway.

In this context, the Trudeau government’s extraordinary decision to nationalize the Trans Mountain project may look worse and worse with each passing year.