Canada torn between First Nations and oil companies as pipeline dispute escalates

  1. Pipeline approval shows overwhelming influence of big oil, say opponents, who cite importance of greener energy
  2. First Nations say their constitutional rights marginalized
  3. Government says pipeline expansion is in national interest

Over the last few weeks, dozens of protestors have been arrested and a new court action filed against a proposed $8 billion pipeline expansion in Western Canada. Observers say the dispute gets to the heart of fundamental tensions in modern Canada: the relationship between the federal government and First Nations, the indigenous peoples of Canada, and the role of the country’s powerful oil industry.

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The Trans Mountain pipeline has carried crude and refined oil from Alberta to British Columbia since 1953. In 2013, the company that owns the pipeline, Texas-based Kinder Morgan, proposed a $6.8 billion expansion, promising to almost triple its capacity to 890,000 barrels a day.

The expansion was opposed by the provincial government of British Columbia, due to the risks of major oil spills. Canada’s federal government approved the plan in November 2016.

Despite verbal and financial commitments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promising the expansion will go ahead, the project has faced repeated protests and legal actions from First Nations and environmental groups, including allegations that the federal government hurried through the approval process at the behest of oil lobbyists.

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Canada’s oil politics

“The pipeline dispute highlights Canada’s Jekyll [and] Hyde personality when it comes to mining resources,” Andrew Nikiforuk, a journalist who’s spent decades covering Canada’s oil industry, told WikiTribune.

“The nation’s political class has decided that exporting bitumen is the only way to fight climate change – a belief so ridiculous that it makes many Canadians cringe,” said Nikiforuk, adding, “whenever resource developers get into trouble in Canada they get politicians to turn into crazy Hydes.”

According to the Canadian government, the energy sector accounts for seven percent of the country’s GDP, and indirectly supports over 600,000 jobs.

“Big oil has called the shots in Ottawa for decades,” Robyn Allan, an economist who has opposed the pipeline expansion, told WikiTribune“This current dispute has exposed the unhealthy relationship in a way that was not possible in the past.

“It is showing clearly how entrenched the unreasonable and unwarranted bias for the oil sands is – how much sway in Ottawa a handful of companies have – and how extreme it has become.”

Some opponents say the project was never financially viable, due to an insufficient market for crude oil. To help fund the project, the Canadian government has twice approved additional fees for companies using the pipeline, at Kinder Morgan’s request, and Justin Trudeau said on April 15 (The Star) that Ottawa will provide financial backing to the project.

“We are witnessing a federal government willing to do whatever it takes to “get this pipeline built” when it’s not commercially viable – even if it means trampling on First Nation, provincial, municipal, environmental, and community rights,” said Allan. “Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan escapes all management responsibility for the failure of its project because Ottawa is doing big oil’s bidding and betraying its obligation to protect the Canadian public interest.”

Kinder Morgan’s costs have risen from an initial $5.4 billion to at least $7.4 billion. The company says costs rose to ensure the project kept in line with the stringent environmental protections the Canadian government demanded before approving the project, which amounted to 157 conditions before approval.

The National Energy Board (NEB), the government body that approved the project, has been criticized for procedural flaws and alleged conflicts of interest. The government announced in February the body will be scrapped. However, the government stands by the project, saying it will expand Canada’s export market and create thousands of jobs.

The provincial government of Alberta has been among the most ardent supporters of the expansion. Citing Kinder Morgan’s estimates, the Alberta government says the pipeline will generate an additional CA$46.7 billion in revenue for Canada’s public sector. On April 16, the province’s legislature tabled a bill threatening to cut off oil supplies to British Columbia, due to that province’s opposition.

A recent poll from research group the Angus Reid Institute showed broad support for the project in Canada, though most of those surveyed said Kinder Morgan could have better presented the project to the public.

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Fight from the First Nations

According to Kinder Morgan’s own figures, the pipeline had 82 oil spills between 1961 and 2016. The government of British Columbia initially objected (Vancouver Sun) to Kinder Morgan’s plan because it said it did not adequately account for the risks associated with more spills. First Nations and environmental groups have increased protests against the plan over recent months, according to groups such as Desmog Canada.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation published its own assessment in February condemning the project, citing “the undeniable jeopardy we would be placing our inlet, the people and creatures of the inlet, the surrounding communities in, as well as, in fact, the global community.”

In August 2017, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which governs part of the land and inlet that the expansion would affect, filed a complaint in the Federal Court of Appeal, arguing they’d been inadequately consulted by the NEB, and their rights overlooked.

In early April, an investigation by the National Observer alleged the federal government had improperly pressed for the approval to go through before completing mandatory consultations with the First Nations. The nation followed up its complaint on April 26, requesting government documents related to the approval process.

Kinder Morgan says it has engaged with 133 indigenous communities regarding the expansion, and signed 43 agreements to provide benefits to First Nations groups, including 33 in British Columbia. These benefits include training, employment, and funding for community projects. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, not all of those agreements have been finalized.

On April 8, Kinder Morgan froze construction, saying the future of the project must be clarified by the end of May.

“Kinder Morgan would be smart to bail,” said Nikiforuk, who thinks the dispute could continue to have repercussions throughout Canada and further afield. “If the pipeline is built, the political fallout will be immense. First Nation resistance could be dramatic and Trudeau will likely be defeated in the next election. And Canada will become another climate change pariah.”

Explore some of the sources for this article and add information:

The original complaint from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (August 4, 2017); the request for more information following the National Observer articles (April 26); the response on behalf of the Canadian government (April 28); the response from Kinder Morgan (April 27); and an update letter setting out the information received (April 29).

The National Observer released documents related to the NEB’s review, obtained through freedom of information requests.

WikiTribune will continue to update this story and will continue looking for different perspectives – particularly from supporters of the expansion. Feel free to edit or comment if you can help.

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