Construction work on Trans Mountain Pipeline Construction work on Trans Mountain Pipeline. Photo: Adam Jones / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Our rulers’ priority is still oil company profits, while climate chaos has wrought devastating wildfires all summer, but resistance is growing, argues John Clarke

The Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion in British Columbia is running into another round of problems and generating even more opposition. ‘The controversial government-owned fossil fuel company is seeking regulatory approval to change its pipeline construction methods and route, after running into problems drilling a tunnel.’

Indigenous people impacted by this project are coming out strongly against this development. The ‘Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation, who have a ‘“historical, cultural and spiritual connection” to the lands the pipeline is being built on, said they never supported or consented to such a change.’ They contend that the new approaches sought by the company ‘would cause “significant and irreparable harm” to their culture, and to the integrity of the spiritually significant lands in question.’

The Trans Mountain pipeline constitutes a key element of Canada’s expanding role as a major oil and gas producer and a look at its history offers some insights into the nature of fossil-fuel capitalism in this country. Such an examination becomes even more compelling because this year Canada has experienced its most severe wildfire season ever.

In the 1950s, ‘representatives from the federal government, Alberta and B.C. endorsed the idea of a new pipeline from the Prairies to the West Coast …’ in order to ‘create a vital market for Alberta’s crude oil resources.’ The project was justified at the time on the grounds that it would serve ‘as a piece of Cold War strategic defence infrastructure, supplying the West with energy in the event of war.’

Initially, the pipeline could carry 150,000 barrels of oil a day and this grew due to the increased output of the Alberta oilsands so that, by the early 2000s, 300,000 barrels a day could pass through it. Trans Mountain has ‘helped solidify Canada’s status as the fourth-largest crude oil exporter in the world’ and the goal of the present project is to triple the flow of oil.

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs has charted the harmful effects of the whole project on Indigenous communities. There have also been serious environmental impacts since the pipeline was first laid, with dozens of oil spills having occurred over the years.

By 2013, the Texas-based Kinder Morgan company had bought Trans Mountain and developed plans that would involve ‘building almost 1,000 kilometres of new pipeline and increasing capacity so that it could ship up to 890,000 barrels per day. The expansion also proposed many more pump stations, storage tanks and tanker facilities.’ It would also mean that ‘oil tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, (would increase) from roughly 60 tankers per year to more than 400.’

With the strong support of the Alberta government, the Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa approved the Kinder Morgan project in November 2016. This was despite intense criticism over the fact that the ‘regulator’s review didn’t consider climate and other environmental impacts, and … ignored scientific information such as the impact of oilsands development on at-risk species and human health.’

In 2018, with protests taking place across the country and the BC government now in opposition to the pipeline extension, ‘Kinder Morgan paused its work and threatened to walk away from the project in a matter of weeks.’ Trudeau declared that ‘access to world markets for Canadian resources is a core national interest. The Trans Mountain expansion will be built.’ His ‘government announced it was purchasing both the pipeline and its expansion project from the company for $4.5 billion. Trans Mountain became a subsidiary of a Crown corporation called the Canada Development Investment Corporation.’

When Kinder Morgan first announced its plans for the expansion, ‘it projected it would cost $5.4 billion and be “operational in late 2017.” The cost is now estimated at a staggering $309 billion and it is hoped to complete the project next year but this is called into question by present developments. Each additional month of delay results in roughly $200 million in lost revenues and roughly $190 million in carrying charges.’

The changes in construction methods that Trans Mountain wants to implement have produced a backlash. The company intends to abandon its earlier commitment to micro-tunnel through a particularly culturally significant portion of the lands of the Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (SSN). Due to encountering hard rock formations, Trans Mountain ‘is facing mounting financial and deadline pressure’ and wants to revert to digging an open trench.

For its part, SSN is clear that such a change would ‘“destroy, damage, or degrade habitat” in the sensitive grasslands and old growth forests that are home to many at-risk wildlife species.’ SSN has made clear that it would never have accepted the pipeline route through its land had it known that the threat of an open trench would emerge and it asks the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) to prevent this. Should the CER rule in favour of Trans Mountain, active opposition to the project is certain to intensify.

Climate impacts

This readiness to proceed with an environmentally destructive pipeline project of this magnitude, trampling on Indigenous rights in the process, is shocking but hardly surprising. As previously noted, Trans Mountain is taking this initiative at the tail end of what has been the most dreadful wildfire season in Canadian history by far.

A statement issued by the federal government notes that ‘Canada’s 2023 wildfire season is the most destructive ever recorded, and it’s not over yet. By September 5, more than 6,132 fires had torched a staggering 16.5 million hectares of land. To put that in perspective, that’s an area larger than Greece and more than double the 1989 record.’

From one side of the country to the other, fires forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and the populations of North American cities choked on the smoke that filled the sky. The raging fires, moreover, while they were an effect of climate change, became a cause of its intensification. By the end of July, ‘accumulated carbon emissions from wildfires across Canada from Jan. 1 to July 31 totalled 290 million mt …This is already more than double the previous record for the year as a whole and represents over 25% of the global total for 2023 to date.’

Trans Mountain’s antics, however, are in line with the approach taken by other fossil-fuel interests operating in Canada. In July, the Canadian Energy Centre gloated that the ‘value of Canadian oil and gas exports climbed 57.1 per cent in 2022 due to strong prices’ and expressed confidence that ‘Canada’s energy sector is positioned for another large expansion.’ Empty assurances of an eventual transition to sustainable energy sources notwithstanding, Canadian fossil-fuel capitalism remains an exceptional threat and a dangerous enemy.

Between 15-17 September, some 600,000 people in over sixty countries took to the streets to demand climate justice. This included a march in New York City, where the UN General Assembly was meeting and the UN secretary-general was convening a ‘Climate Ambition Summit.’ That people mobilised in this way, rather than trusting ‘world leaders’ to deal effectively with the climate crisis, is important and points the way forward for all of us.

As the impacts of climate change become increasingly dire, Trans Mountain is ready to go back on its undertakings to the Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation, inflicting further environmental damage in the process, so that it can massively increase a deadly but profitable flow of oil. Such reckless and destructive conduct is just one further indication among many of the need for mass action in the face of the climate crisis.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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