Trans Mountain Expansion ministerial report asks questions that have ready answers

Trans Mountain
Trans Mountain Expansion will increase number of oil tankers plying BC waters.

A social, environmental, economic rationale for approving Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline does exist

With the prospect of a green light for the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline within the next month, the release this past week of the ministerial panel report on the project was not the whitewash eco-activists expected – proving once again that the BC environmental movement has under-estimated the Trudeau Government.

Trans Mountain Expansion
Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline route.

A year ago, during the federal election, then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised BC activists he would order a re-do of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project. Once in power, he decided against that option, declaring that the company shouldn’t have to suffer the lengthy and expensive process twice. Instead, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr appointed a ministerial panel comprised of Kim Baird, Tony Penikett and Dr. Annette Trimbee to engage with “local communities and Indigenous peoples to identify whether there were any additional views not heard during the National Energy Board’s (NEB) review process that could be relevant to the Government of Canada’s final decision on the project.”

The report appears to be tough on the proposed pipeline.

It’s kind of the icing on the cake of a fatally flawed Kinder Morgan review process. It shows the social, environmental and economic rationale for approving this pipeline simply doesn’t exist. The only viable option coming from this report is the rejection of Kinder Morgan by the federal government,” Patrick DeRochie, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence, told DeSmog.

Trans Mountain Expansion
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Maybe not. There’s another way to think about the six difficult questions posed at the end of the report: As a way to set up the Liberal approval when it finally arrives, by Dec. 19 at the latest, though rumours are flying that it could happen in Nov.

The Trudeau Government, after all, has spent the past year formulating answers to each one of these questions.

1. Can construction of a new Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments?

Of course it can! The Canadian government is broke and the only way it can pay for the new climate policies is with tax revenue from increased oil sales, preferably to foreign buyers willing to pay Brent price instead of the steeply discounted Western Canada Select charged to American refineries. As the Prime Minister has famously said, Canada needs both wind turbines and pipelines.

2. In the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy, how can policy-makers effectively assess projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline?

Canada actually has a national energy strategy. The premiers agreed to it back in July, 2015. Critics can argue about whether the strategy is sufficiently comprehensive, but not about its existence.

oil country
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3. How might Cabinet square approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline with its commitment to reconciliation with First Nations and to the UNDRIP principles of “free, prior, and informed consent?”

This summer I wrote an article for Canadian Business that included a lengthy interview with Minister Carr, who made it clear that better consultation with First Nations is a key part of the Liberal approach to energy infrastructure. But he never said any indigenous group would have a veto. Or that unanimous consent was required.

Or that Liberal efforts had to bear fruit with First Nations before a project was approved. The message from Cabinet when it approves Kinder Morgan will no doubt be that the Trudeau Government is repairing relationships with First Nations, the process takes time, some nations and groups are on side with the project, etc.

The answer to question number three has to be plausible, not perfect.

4. Given the changed economic and political circumstances, the perceived flaws in the NEB process, and also the criticism of the Ministerial Panel’s own review, how can Canada be confident in its assessment of the project’s economic rewards and risks?

Many of the presenters to the ministerial panel were the same opponents who have complained for years about the supposed deficiency of the NEB’s evaluation of pipelines. But as NEB supporters have pointed out, the agency does an excellent job of assessing issues which fall within its mandate, particularly technical, engineering, and science subjects. It does a less than stellar job when overwhelmed with political, social, cultural, climate change, and other concerns outside that mandate.

The Liberals have already announced an NEB “modernization process,” which will get kicked off this fall, and the appointment of three extra NEB panel members for the Energy East pipeline process who will take a broader view than the more technical members.

None of this is directly related to Trans Mountain Expansion, but the Liberals can say that they have heard the concerns and have taken steps to improve the NEB.

Remember, this is about politics, not perfection.

5. If approved, what route would best serve aquifer, municipal, aquatic and marine safety?

The report’s discussion of this question came in two parts.

The first raised the highly contentious BC issue of oil spill response, both on land and the marine environment, where everyone wants a world class system but no one seems to know exactly what one looks like. Fortunately for the Liberals, spill response falls under federal jurisdiction. Ottawa has the authority to mandate faster response times, force the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation to carry more equipment and personnel, address concerns about oil tankers traversing the Second Narrows passage, and so on. Expect them to do so.

The second part of the question is about the pipeline route, which is tougher to address. These days, there is no route that won’t be opposed by some group or community. Carr told me the government is reconciled to not pleasing everyone with its decision and you can bet this issue will be taken into the Liberals’ political calculations.

6. How does federal policy define the terms “social licence” and “Canadian public interest” and their inter-relationships?

Don’t expect the Trudeau Government to willingly jump down the social licence rabbit hole. Instead, it can point to a recent Abacus Data poll that shows 76 per cent of Canadians are willing to support or accept new pipelines if there is corresponding policy to address climate change; that percentage is 78 per cent in BC. No surprise, survey results show 80 per cent of Liberals (62% of New Democrats, 87% of Tories) support this approach.

The Liberals have 17 MPs in Metro Vancouver and five cabinet ministers. Sure the party might lose a few seats if it approves Trans Mountain Expansion, but it could pick up just as many (or more) in other provinces. And the Abacus data shows the outline of the Liberal strategy to take the fight to its critics, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, both prominent New Democrats.

Taking the fight to one’s enemy isn’t a bad strategy.

Is it any surprise the federal carbon tax plan was rushed through this fall? Expect it to figure prominently in the speech of whichever minister announces the TMX pipeline green light.

Well, there you have it, answers to the ministerial panel’s six questions. They may not be great answers, they may not be answers the Trudeau Government chooses to justify approving Trans Mountain Expansion, but they illustrate that there is nothing in the ministerial panel report that will prove fatal to the project.

Unfortunately for Patrick DeRochie and other BC eco-activists,  a social, environmental and economic rationale for approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline does exist.

Trans Mountain Expansion
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