21st Century Pipeline Expansion

This month, Houston-based firm Kinder Morgan paused active construction of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline (TMP) citing British Columbia’s resistance. This rare moratorium gives more time to consider the two most important considerations for the project which so far remain unaddressed: the project’s timeframe and contribution to climate change.

Although this is not something admitted by any of the project’s supporters, all indications suggest that Kinder Morgan’s expanded pipeline will last beyond 2050.

KM’s financial projections — which should be interpreted as an absolute if unlikely minimum — account for the next twenty years of operation for the expanded pipeline. A more likely estimation can be gleaned from the pipeline’s predecessor.

The original TMP operated for over six decades. And the pipeline’s removal is not up for debate despite running through the beautiful Jasper National Park — which has suffered both from global warming and pipeline spills. The protected, UNESCO World Heritage site has seen six spills including one 125,000-liter crude oil leak. This is from the pipeline whose capacity will be tripled and whose contents will get dirtier if Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion succeeds.

Marker in Columbia Icefields showing impact of Global Warming (Jasper National Park, 2015)

The risk of spills has British Columbia, indigenous communities, and environment-concerned Canadians up-in-arms. But what about greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) — you know, those pesky, hard-to-capture emissions currently warming the earth at an alarming rate.

Neither KM nor the National Energy Board (NEB), in its approval of the pipeline, considered emissions from either production or ‘downstream’ use of transported petroleum products — by far the largest concern regarding emissions. To its credit, the NEB did recommend KM offset construction-related emissions, which are substantial. Unfortunately, this lack of consideration for production or consumption related emissions leaves millions of tons of additional GHG in the atmosphere each year unaccounted for.

In other words, KM and NEB — which represent the building company and the government approval agency — have totally ignored the most dangerous aspect of the project.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the rescue, right?

Trudeau has implied that his carbon tax plan would offset carbon emissions from the project — closer inspection reveals that the carbon taxes will not be at a high enough rate to be habit changing and, therefore, will not substantially reduce emissions. In fact, not only will Canada not be meaningfully reducing its own current emission levels, but it will also be helping to keep other countries reliant on fossil fuels, and thus emissions producing, for decades to come.

Trudeau’s role gets uglier.

He has labeled this combination of carbon taxes and pipeline expansion as part of a ‘transition to renewables,’ indicating that these policies are instrumental to his government’s national climate plan. The carbon tax is being used to excuse major additional GHG. Experts, incredulous about such a plan, have labeled Trudeau’s approach as simplistic and unserious towards Canada’s international commitments. The Liberal government’s plan is revealed as posturing while it pushes for the rapid expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure across the U.S. and Canada.

Moreover, Trudeau’s mischaracterization of his expansionist policies makes an honest conversation regarding the pipeline difficult, which may explain troubling opinion poll results recorded by the company Abacus. These results reveal that Canadians are concerned about climate change and want the demand for Canadian oil to decrease in the next decade. Yet support remains high for the KM pipeline expansion which commits Canada to exporting its resources for many decades.

This type of long-term commitment to fossil fuels does not correlate with an emission-reductive path.

KM has set a deadline of May 31 to decide whether to proceed construction. This deadline is likely intended to pressure Prime Minister Trudeau, who has so far staunchly supported the pipeline expansion, to use all tools at the disposal of the federal government to force the pipeline’s construction. Earlier this week, he pledged public money to back the project. Rather, the Liberal Party should take this opportunity to reevaluate their pro-pipeline position.

If the Liberal government is serious about Canada’s international commitments it must give a timeline for the operation of the pipeline, take responsibility by calculating total GHG emissions from Canadian fossil fuels, and clarify how it plans to reduce current levels of emissions while adding millions of tons of additional GHG to the atmosphere each year through the expansion. If this proves impossible — which it will — then Canada must reject the Kinder Morgan pipeline.