The Doorstep of Canada’s Carbon Economy: A Mega-Pipeline Threatens


Befitting its nickname of the Great White North, Canada has long been addicted to megaprojects — taming nature with huge hydroelectric developments in northern Quebec, dams on the Columbia and Peace Rivers, producing oil from Alberta’s tar sands, offshore drilling in rough waters near Newfoundland, plus oil and gas pipelines.

A mega-pipeline is currently under construction in British Columbia, which will have potential impacts on both sides of the international border. The 1,150-kilometer expansion of the TransMountain Pipeline will carry oil from Edmonton, Alberta through B.C. to a port loading tankers in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver. The project will triple pipeline capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels.

The TransMountain project is to be appreciated by all connoisseurs of ugliness. It plows through Jasper National Park and Mt. Robson Provincial Park, heads south down the Thompson River and Coquihalla Rivers and eventually through the Fraser River valley into B.C.’s populous Lower Mainland.

Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of Northwest Progressive Institute, witnessed construction on a Canadian Rockies trip this month, and delivered this observation: “All along the highways of lower British Columbia is evidence of TransMountain Pipeline construction. Felled trees, ugly bald hillsides, pipeline sections, rumbling trucks, gravel driveways, orange cones . . .  The beauty of my June 12 trip from Chilliwack to Hope and then up to Merritt was spoiled by this ugliness and what it portends.”

What does it portend? The oil is not for burning in British Columbia, Canada, or the Northwest. It will be pumped onto tankers and shipped mostly to Asia. The pipeline will mean a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic in and out of the pipeline terminus.

While Villeneuve received an eye-level view, I recently had an elevated perspective on potential pipeline impacts. Deer Park, in Olympic National Park, looks down a vertical mile to waters of the Salish Sea. The oil-laden tankers from TransMountain’s new oil port will head out through Burrard Inlet and English Bay, and down through Haro Strait. The strait is boundary between our San Juans Islands and Canada’s Gulf Islands. The ships would then exit out the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The tankers will traverse the migration routes of great Sockeye salmon runs that head up the Fraser River to spawn in the Adams, Quesne, and Stuart River systems. Tankers will travel past both U.S. (Olympic) and Canadian (Pacific Rim and Gulf Islands) national parks, as well as national monuments, state parks, and provincial parks. The Salish Sea is home to our Southern Resident orca whales, critically endangered, as well a world-famous recreation destination.

Any oil spill, spread by powerful currents, would be catastrophic. A 231,000-gallon bunker oil spill in December, 1988, off Ocean Shores, fouled beaches in Olympic National Park with currents carrying oil north to Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park. Aware of potential danger, both then-B.C. Premier John Horgan and Gov. Jay Inslee opposed TransMountain. But B.C.’s legal appeals were rebuffed by Canada’s Supreme Court.

The Canadian government has touted its response system to vessels in trouble. The truth is, however, that you can’t contain a large oil spill. I received a long-ago call from Vancouver MP John Fraser, then Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons, speaking from a blustery Long Beach. He was cussing up a storm. The U.S. Coast Guard had failed to warn Canadians of the extent of the spill. The Canadian Coast Guard was undergoing a change of command. The federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans hoped the spill would just go away.  Meanwhile, the winds were driving oil ashore, and a new national park, which Fraser helped create, was in the crosshairs.

The wider implications go far beyond sensitive marine waters of the Salish Sea. In words from Environment/Climate Change Canada, “Canada is warming at twice the global average rate and at three times the rate, in the north.”

Climate change has literally arrived at the doorstep of Canada’s carbon economy. The main producer of bitumen crude oil carried by TransMountain is the “oil patch” near Fort McMurray. Northern Alberta has experienced droughts and one “heat dome” after another, generating record wildfires.  A 1.5 million-acre fire in 2016 destroyed 2,400 houses and buildings, forcing 88,000 people in and near Fort McMurray to flee their homes, the largest evacuation in Canadian history. As of June 23, fires this year have consumed a half-million acres in the Fort McMurray Forest Area.

Global warming has intensified storms off the Earth’s oceans. A record flow of “atmospheric rivers” came ashore off the Pacific Ocean in November of 2021, and traveled the route taken by the Villeneuve family this month. The lower Fraser Valley was isolated. The Coquihalla highway was ruptured near Merritt. And for a time, Greater Vancouver was cut off by land from the rest of Canada..

In words of Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, “TMX would facilitate about 84 million (metric) tonnes per year of CO2 emissions (upstream and exported). At $200 per tonne, that’s $16.8 billion (Canadian) annually in future damages, meaning by every year TMX is in service, it could deliver a blow roughly equivalent to the $17 billion in damage B.C. experienced in 2021 due to extreme weather.

“The 84 million tonnes is substantially larger than B.C.’s current greenhouse gas emissions and equivalent to 11 percent of Canada’s annual emissions. The catch? Most of those emissions will be in other countries, not connected in Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is implementing a controversial carbon tax and has committed Canada to what he calls a low carbon economy. Ironically, at the same time Trudeau is the chief architect of TransMountain expansion. The Canadian government paid $4.5 billion (Canadian) to purchase the pipeline in 2018 from Kinder Morgan when the Houston-based firm was threatening to pull the plug on the project. The expansion was once projected to cost $7 billion (Canadian) to complete, but cost estimates soared to $21.9 billion (Canadian) in 2022 and have now reached $30 billion.

Near-term political and geopolitical considerations have taken precedent over protecting the Earth. The current prime minister and his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, have never been popular in Western Canada. They’ve been despised in Alberta, where the governing Liberal Party holds only two seats in Canada’s House of Commons.

The pipeline will guarantee a global market for Canadian oil, particularly now that Presidents Obama and Biden have pulled the plug on the Keystone Pipeline. Hence, TransMountain has been deemed in “Canada’s interests” despite its environmental and climate impacts. The pipeline project is holy grail in Alberta, whose then-premier threatened the B.C. government with trade retaliation.

Trudeau has argued that the pipeline generates jobs, and that its profits will help pay for Canada’s transition to a green, low carbon economy. Yet, a report last week by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer said the Canadian government’s 2018 decision “to acquire, expand, operate, and eventually divest of the TransMountain assets will result in a net loss for the federal government.” The bottom line in the report: “TransMountain no longer continues to be a profitable undertaking.”

In pre-Pleistocene times, giant woolly mammoths roamed the Great White North, but were rendered extinct by climate and hunting by early man. With the TransMountain expansion, today’s Canadian government may sire a new species of white elephant.

(A version of this article first appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “Cascadia Advocate.)

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


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