Q&A: Former Deputy Minister of the Environment Tom Gunton on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline
"The probability of a future spill is 99.9 percent, and according to their own application, they forecast a spill once every two years."
December 23, 2016
On November 30, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the $6.8 billion Trans Mountain Pipeline the green light, to the elation of the Alberta government and Canada’s oil and gas sector and to the dismay of local municipalities and environmentalists alike. After five years of approvals, the project—and the protests—will begin to move fast, with the proponent Kinder Morgan looking to start construction next September and operations in 2019. Few people have paid closer attention to both the costs and benefits of the project than Tom Gunton, director of Simon Fraser’s Resource and Environmental Planning Program and a former B.C. deputy minister of the environment. We spoke to Gunton about what the project means for Vancouver.
Let’s start big picture: why does Kinder Morgan want to twin the current pipeline, is it all about increasing capacity?
The current pipeline ships around 300,000 barrels of oil per day and most of that is shipped either to a refinery in Washington State or to the Chevron refinery on the Burrard Inlet. It also ships products from Alberta refineries to meet B.C.’s needs. There’s also a small additional amount that is available for export, around two to five tankers per month, and that number has been going down in the last few years. So the current installation is largely domestically oriented, and now Kinder Morgan wants to turn it into an export facility aimed at the Asian market by tripling the capacity of the pipeline to 890,000 barrels to day. That increase will turn Vancouver into one of the major oil exporting ports of the world, with around one tanker entering and/or departing the harbour per day—possibly in excess of 30 per month.
Is this a project whose presence Vancouverites will notice—while it’s either under construction or in operation?
The actual construction of the project will be very disruptive in the Lower Mainland and in Burnaby in particular. Once it’s completed there will be a significant expansion, again in Burnaby, of the tank farm to prepare oil for shipment.
What sort of economic impact will the project have on the region?
Around 90 percent of the benefits cited by Kinder Morgan will go to Alberta. Meanwhile, B.C. is to bear almost all of the environmental risks, gaining at most 10 percent of the economic benefits. As for employment, Kinder Morgan has itself estimated 312 permanent operating jobs, but in the context of the 16,000 jobs that were created in B.C. in the last 12 months, that figure is not very high. Moreover, you also put a lot of other jobs in other sectors at risk. For example, a major spill would shut down the port of Vancouver and have a major economic impact on the region.
A number of groups—including the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade—have come out in favour of the project, citing, for example, the sizeable number of British Columbians who work in the Alberta oil sands. Aren’t those benefits we should also be paying attention to when assessing this project?
From B.C.’s perspective, you can get all of the same benefits to Alberta without the Trans Mountain expansion. If you build Enbridge Line 3 (the other pipeline approved by Trudeau on November 30) you achieve all the same pricing benefits to Alberta and Canada of access to tidewater. For us, the biggest problem is that the National Energy Board evaluates each pipeline independently, and doesn’t ask if there are alternatives that could provide the same benefits at a lower cost and with a lower environmental impact.
One of the biggest concerns for both the cities of Burnaby and Vancouver is that of a major spill—either on land or in the water. What would such a situation look like and what impact would it have on the region?
When it comes to a spill along the pipeline route, Kinder Morgan has recorded 82 spills over the pipeline’s operating life. Thus the probability of a future spill is 99.9 percent, and according to their own application, they forecast a spill once every two years. A lot of these spills are very small spills, but there is the chance for one major spill. As we know from land spills in Alberta, they can have a significant effect on the environment and a detrimental effect on the local water supply.
The biggest concern, however, is for a marine spill. Last July, we saw what a very small, 25-barrel fuel spill did in English Bay, and in that case the capacity to clean it up was shown to be very poor. The probability for a tanker spill ranges from 16 percent over the operating life to up to 66 percent. Other estimates range from about 58 percent to as high as 98 percent. Furthermore, Kinder Morgan will not be considered liable in the case of a major marine spill event. While the company was required by the NEB to provide sufficient insurance to cover a major land-based pipeline spill, the amount for which they’re liable to cover a tanker spill is about 1.3 billion dollars. Unfortunately, the potential cost of the tanker spill accident can range from $4.4 billion to $25 billion in the case of a major spill. The B.C. government should require per its approval that the shippers be obligated to cover 100 percent of the damages associated with any operations. The consequences of a spill would hence be catastrophic—as we’ve continued to see with the ongoing impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years later. The short-term damage alone could destroy the salmon runs, wipe out some of the orca populations in the Georgia Straight, and shut down the port of Vancouver.
The company has said that it wants to break ground by September 2017, so what are the next steps for the project?
First the B.C. government needs to complete its environmental assessment and make a decision whether to approve the project and if so under what conditions. Previously, the B.C. government had delegated its authority to assess the project to the federal government, but because of a decision that came down on Enbridge Northern Gateway case, the province now has to undertake its own impact assessment.
The provincial government has also issued five conditions that must be met before the project can be approved. Four of the conditions—pertaining to land and marine safety, First Nations consultation and project approvals—will need to be independently assessed by the government. As for the final condition—the net benefit to B.C.—it comes nowhere near that, so I don’ t know if that condition could actually ever be met, because the more conditions that are met the more expensive this project becomes. Finally, there’s potential for a number of court challenges. Northern Gateway’s approval was overturned in court on the grounds of inadequate consultation with First Nations. There will also be challenges, I’m sure, under the species at risk legislation as there’s an acknowledgement that the orca population is at risk and this project will add to that.
A number of environmental organizations have promised to take action to stop the project, What impact could protests have on the project, and in particular, how will both the provincial and federal government respond to such actions?
Governments respond to various kinds of political pressures. If we look back at the War in the Woods in 1998 in Clayoquot Sound, the government made a land use decision which was followed by significant protests, and then in response the government changed its decision because it couldn’t stand the political and social pressure [Gunton was the deputy minister of environment at the time]. My perspective is that it is very damaging to any society for any project that causes much conflict to be pushed through.