The Van Mag Q&A: Kai Nagata

The Dogwood Initiative’s Energy & Democracy director talks about pipelines, politics and the odds of Kinder Morgan’s controversial expansion ever getting built in the Lower Mainland

January 12, 2016

By Max Fawcett

On Monday, the B.C. government formally served notice to Kinder Morgan that it would not be supporting its proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which connects Alberta’s oil sands with tidewater in Vancouver. The reason, according to the government, is that it can’t be certain that the project will meet two of the five “conditions” it said would need to be met in order to earn its support. As the Globe and Mail‘s Jeffrey Jones and Brent Jang reported, the province had asked Kinder Morgan three times for information on what its plans were when it came to spills on land and at sea. The response from the company, it seems, was not satisfactory. “Had Trans Mountain provided sufficient information … to enable the province to conclude that it would have world-class marine and terrestrial spill prevention and response capacity, then the province would have been in a position to support …the issuance of a certificate for the project,” their submission to the National Energy Board says. “However, this is not the case.”

Vancouver Magazine caught up with Kai Nagata, the Dogwood Initiative’s Energy & Democracy director, in order to find out what this means for the project and the people potentially affected by it.

What are your thoughts on B.C. saying no to Trans Mountain? Is that game, set, and match for the project?

It’s actually entirely consistent with what they said in 2013 about Enbridge, which is basically if you want to come and build a heavy oil project in B.C. you have to follow the campsite rule—you have to leave the province at least as well-off as you find it. It’s actually pretty hard for anyone who proposes to ship dilbit [diluted bitumen, the stuff that’s produced in the Alberta oil sands] to either convince the province that they can clean it up if it spills in the ocean or that it will deliver a financial reward with commensurate with that risk. Based on those criteria, Trans Mountain and Enbridge are not that different in terms of the characteristics of their projects, so it’s not that surprising to see the environment minister [Mary Polak] say they haven’t met the five conditions.

Do you think the proponents understand this yet, or do they think the province was—and is—bluffing with the conditions it’s laid down?

That would be a question for the companies, I guess. But so far, the general pattern that we’ve seen from Kinder Morgan is that they don’t take the Canadian regulatory process overly seriously. In the conference call in December with investors, I believe Steve Kean actually referenced the province’s conditions and the progress that he believed they were making towards meeting them. The tone of that call would suggest that they didn’t really see the province as an obstacle. But the reality now is that, with the B.C. Liberals putting some clarity around their position, there’s no party left in B.C. that sees any political upside to supporting the project. It begs the question: if the B.C. Liberals, the B.C. Conservatives, the B.C. Greens and the B.C. NDP oppose this project, where does it leave the federal parties?

Is this another win for you when it comes to resisting pipeline activity on the coast?

It’s been an interesting few months. The basic principle behind our work is that we think decisions should be moved closer to the people who have to live with them. The current decision making process, and the current NEB review, really don’t make a lot of room for any kind of decisive or meaningful input from those people and those First Nations and communities along the path. I think for the province to step up and assert its position kind of moves the needle a little bit towards the west coast and away from Ottawa. Overall, that’s a good thing. But I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag. The response by the federal government is really going to tell the tale of what this debate is going to look like over the next couple of years.

That’s a lot of pressure on Justin Trudeau’s shoulders, given that he’s supported Trans Mountain in the past and said he’d support it if it met all of the relevant regulatory approvals. That puts him in an interesting box, doesn’t it?

I’d say it puts him in the same box as the provincial government. In the statement today, they said they support in principle the idea of moving inland resources to international markets, and that’s what Trudeau has said in the past about Kinder Morgan. But it’s a question of how you do it, and how you get buy-in for a project like that. I think we’ve seen a lot of examples recently of how to go about that very, very poorly. Trudeau, right now, is saddled with an NEB that was stacked by Stephen Harper on the way out, and it doesn’t allow the Liberals to make an appointment until 2020—after the next election. He’s really got all the political cover he could ask for, in terms of bringing in a major shakeup at the energy board. But so far, the Liberals have held their fire.

If the NEB approved Trans Mountain, do you think people in the Lower Mainland would accept that decision?

No. I think the polling’s pretty clear, both from advocacy groups like Dogwood and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. A lot of people have studied the question of the legitimacy of the NEB, and roughly seven in ten Canadians—and I think the proportion might be a little higher in British Columbia—view the NEB as being a political organ or an industry-captured regulator. Their word doesn’t mean much, and I think the federal Liberals are smart enough to recognize that. The question becomes: if that’s not good enough to make a decision on, then what additional questions would need to be answered in order to make a final decision?

Can you foresee a time when temperature around the pipeline conversation comes down a few degrees in Vancouver? Or are people, now that they’ve been made aware of this issue and taken ownership in it, here to fight to the end?

I think the trust has been damaged, especially under the previous government, so folks are conditioned to expect the worst from industry. The story about foreign companies—in this case, Kinder Morgan—colluding with a single-minded and somewhat callous federal government has left some scars. It’s not going to happen overnight, that people are suddenly reinvested in the process and trusting of the federal government. That’s why this lack of clarity right now is so disappointing, because there does seem to be an opportunity to reset that relationship between Ottawa and people on the west coast, and apart from a couple of symbolic promises like the Coast Guard station reopening we haven’t really seen the new government tackle that yet.

 

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