OTTAWA, Ontario — It’s decision time for a pipeline project that has set Canadian provinces against each other, opened rifts among its Indigenous communities and prompted major protests.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet is meeting on Tuesday to decide the fate of a 9.3 billion Canadian dollar plan to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline, which links Alberta’s oil sands to a port near Vancouver, British Columbia.
The project is a critical component of Trudeau’s longstanding position that Canada needs to maintain a strong energy industry to support its efforts to mitigate climate change. His government purchased the pipeline from its American owners a year ago to ensure its expansion.
But with Trans Mountain, Trudeau has found himself trapped in the middle of an issue that has provoked heated rhetoric on both sides, divided Canada’s two westernmost provinces and exposed a rift in the country’s Indigenous communities. It is also likely to become a flash point in the upcoming national elections, in October.
If his Cabinet approves the expansion, Trudeau is unlikely to get credit from the pipeline’s proponents in Alberta. At the same time, such a move will certainly raise the ire of environmentalists in British Columbia, where the line ends at a tanker terminal near Vancouver.
“He’s really in a tough spot,” said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Trudeau can’t claim a victory out of this no matter what he does.”
Alberta’s landlocked oil industry has been repeatedly thwarted in its quest for additional pipelines.
The Keystone XL project that would link Alberta’s oil sands to the Gulf Coast of the United States has faced strong opposition from environmentalists and some landowners, leaving it mired in litigation. A pipeline to Eastern Canada was abandoned by its proponents, and Trudeau did not approve a new pipeline that would have run through Northern British Columbia.
Squeezed for capacity, the oil industry has increasingly turned to trains to ship its products from the oil sands, a method that is both costly and potentially dangerous because of the risk of derailments. The industry in Alberta also argues that it is forced to sell its product at a discount because of the transportation issues.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers claims that discount costs Canada’s economy 80 million Canadian dollars a day, or nearly $60 million, although not all economists agree with that estimate.
Trudeau agreed to back an expanded Trans Mountain in exchange for a promise from Rachel Notley, Alberta’s New Democratic Party premier at the time, to introduce carbon taxes.
But Notley’s support of the expansion created a dispute between Alberta and British Columbia, where opponents included environmentalists who want to decrease production from the oil sands, as well as some Indigenous communities that have both environmental concerns and territorial claims. Other opponents are worried about increased tanker traffic and a potential marine disaster.
The two provinces clashed and, at one point, Notley banned imports of wine from British Columbia and threatened to cut off oil and gas shipments to the province.
After the Canadian government bought out the American partner in the pipeline project, it was immediately hit with litigation.
The Federal Court of Canada found that the government had not sufficiently consulted Indigenous communities along the route and ordered a more extensive review of the potential effects on marine life because of increased tanker traffic.
While the government now believes that those issues have been fully resolved, that view is not shared by several Indigneous groups. Along with environmental groups, they are expected to continue making legal challenges if the project is approved.
And there is little doubt that protests against the project will continue.
But the pipeline is supported by several Indigneous communities in British Columbia’s interior and in Alberta.
Not only have their leaders welcomed the prospect of jobs during the construction period, at least two groups of Indigenous communities are working on plans to buy some or all of the pipeline from the federal government, which said that it ultimately intends to sell the project once the expansion is finished.
Piping has already been stockpiled at points along the Trans Mountain route. While some local permits still need to be obtained — a process that cannot be used to block the project — it is expected that construction would begin in the fall or perhaps during the summer, if the project is approved.
One great hope for the expanded pipeline is that it may open up new markets for Canada’s oil which is now mainly exported to the United States.
But there is no assurance that a bigger terminal for ships and more oil moving through the pipe will actually inspire buyers in Asia, and China in particular, to look more toward Canada for their needs. Trans Mountain has not announced any major contracts with Asian companies, and of the four tankers that have loaded at Trans Mountains terminal this year, only one headed to China.
And the pipeline and the division it has sown will likely become an issue as Canadians go to vote in October. Turnbull said that handling it will be one of Trudeau’s most delicate campaign tasks.
“There’s been a series of events that are not under the government’s control,” she said. “There’s a sense the government has lost control over this file.”