My latest thoughts on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

I have a strong interest in pipelines. I have written a lot about pipelines with a section dedicated to them at this blog and numerous pieces at my blog at the Huffington Post. Most of my blog pipeline pieces address the Energy East pipeline. That is because, in my mind, Energy East is the most important of the pipeline proposals and I believe it is an absolutely necessary piece of Canadian infrastructure. Northern Gateway, meanwhile, I have avoided covering. The reason for this is that, for the most part, I agree with the activists who argue that shipping dilbit out of the North Coast is not advisable. I have not written a lot about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) recently, but some readers will know that the TMX debate was the topic that drew me into blogging. I bring this up because I will be attending the TMX Ministerial Panel Public Open House being held in Langley on July 27th and so it seems a pretty reasonable time to take a few hours to think deeply about how I feel about this project at this point in time.

For those of you interested in a summary of the energy numbers behind the TMX project consider my Huffington Post blog on the subject (Here Are The Realities Of Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion). It summarizes the energy case for the pipeline. Not to brag, but I have yet to see another post like it that provides all the numbers behind the project in one place. After examining the TMX project that post had the following conclusion:

We need to move towards a society where oil products are not used for power or fuel. Until that day comes, we need these products and the safest, most environmentally responsible way to get them to us over land is via pipelines. While we transition away from fossil fuels lets ensure that we use the safest modes of transport in order to protect our joint ecological heritage. That means pipelines like the Trans Mountain.

It has been almost a year since that post was written so let’s see if anything has changed? Let’s start with some background. As I have written previously, I tend to avoid writing on topics in which I have a potential conflict of interest, and the TMX is one such project. To be clear, I have no financial interest in the TMX, nor, to the best of my knowledge, does my employer. My conflict is personal: I live two houses down from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline (less than 40 m away) as it traverses North Langley. The footpath built on the pipeline right-of-way is my walking route to work every day and my favourite running path (which runs diagonally through much of North Langley) includes a long series of linear parks associated with the right-of-way. Unlike most of my neighbours, I bought my house fully aware of the existence and location of the Trans Mountain pipeline and have walked along much of the publicly accessible portions of the Trans Mountain in the Township of Langley over the last decade.

As an interested party, I have attended most of the public events held in our Township on the project and even submitted questions during the initial round of consultation in 2014. I am sad to say that the proponent chose not to address my concerns at that time and I have been deeply disappointed with how the proponent has handled itself throughout this process. Their cookie-cutter answers (and non-answers) to legitimate questions from individuals like myself and experts like Dr. Andrew Weaver alike have left me with a strong feeling that they aren’t living up to the spirit of the public consultation of the project.

That being said, opponents to the pipeline have been equally problematic. Consider the City of Vancouver, in an earlier post I posed questions about the City of Vancouver May 27th Trans Mountain Expansion Proposal Summary of Evidence which, as I wrote in a follow-up post (More on that “Toxic Benzene Plume”), represents pretty questionable science. In that post I described it as both “troubling” and “an outlier”. For those of you not familiar with science-speak that is not something upon which you want to base your evidence-based policy. My low opinion of the work has not stopped the City from trumpeting the results of their “study” whenever they can. Similarly I had an issue when a representative from the BCSEA highlighted 82 “spills” from the Trans Mountain pipeline. My issue is the rather unusual definition of a “spill” used by the National Energy Board (NEB). To explain, under the NEB definition, a release that occurs in a spill containment facility is still reported as a “spill”. Most of those “spills” (almost 70%) posed essentially zero risk to human health or the environment since the point of a “spill containment facility” is to contain releases before they hit the environment.

As Kinder Morgan points out at their web site, in the last 35 years there have been three reportable spills from the Trans Mountain pipeline (outside of containment systems) with one being the responsibility of a third party (the 2007 Westridge spill in Burnaby everyone). Now let’s compare those three spills to the three latest Canadian oil-transportation rail spills: Gogama, Galenas and Lac Megantic. The human and financial costs of the rail spills completely eclipse those of the pipeline spills. Consider that rail has been found to be over 4.5 times more likely to have an accident as a pipeline and remember that since the Alaskan oil fields are drying up and new sources are needed to keep the Pacific Northwest in fuel. Understand that new railway capacity is being built to supply up to 725,000 b/d of Bakken crude to the West Coast and the Puget Sound refineries.

As I wrote in 2014, the US rail route travels over any number of rivers including the headwaters of the Kootenay River and alongside the Columbia Rivers to the Puget Sound. The route risks our shared Canadian and American ecological heritage. Every barrel of oil that can reach the Puget Sound via pipeline or in a double-hulled tanker is a barrel not sent overland adjacent to some of the most pristine and biologically diverse freshwater aquatic ecosystems in the world. Put another way, each Aframax tanker (700,000 bbl at 80% full) leaving the Port of Vancouver for the short haul to the Puget Sound could replace over 11 unit trains traveling almost halfway across the continent. Think I’m overstating the risk? Well look what a happened adjacent to the Columbia River just last month. It was only freak luck that we aren’t scooping dead fish out of the river today. According to the Guardian, including that incident, at least 26 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the US and Canada.

As I wrote previously, the upgrade of the Trans Mountain will almost certainly reduce the amount of oil transported to the Puget Sound by rail from the Bakken oil fields. Moreover, with the decrease in Alaskan crude being transported to the Puget Sound, an increase associated with TMX may not significantly change the volume of oil that is currently transported in the Salish Sea. Finally, given transportation costs, it is likely that a major “export” location for Trans Mountain oil could actually be the Puget Sound.

From a British Columbia consumer perspective, by dedicating Line 1 to refined petroleum products, light crude or heavy crude oil the TMX could help mitigate the supply bottleneck that has Vancouver drivers paying such high prices for gasoline and diesel and leaves us at the mercy of production issues in the Puget Sound.

So reading the info above you probably think I am on board with the project? The problem is that I, like many others, feel a lot of unease about the project. I’m not entirely sure that I trust Kinder Morgan in this process. I really wish I did but I can’t help but be concerned that the attitude they showed in replying to the public consultation in 2014 is indicative of a deeper rot. Then I read a story like this one and I lean towards a belief that the replies from 2014 were just the result of a process that overwhelmed the proponent with repetitive and often useless questions solicited by organizations like The Pipe Up Network or TankerFreeBC. I know they flooded the process with repetitive requests and can only imagine that replying to all those requests got pretty annoying after a while.

I also have some strong reservations about the original Trans Mountain pipeline: the part that will not be upgraded and runs near my house and my children. Unlike the new pipeline, built with all the technological and chemical advances of the last 30 years, the original Trans Mountain was built over 60 years ago and I can’t think of many pieces of infrastructure from the 1950’s that I would trust to last another 50 years with significant upgrades. In the event of a major seismic event will I be volunteering to help restore and control the damage in Yorkson and Munday Creeks before they drain into (and poison?) the Fraser River? The answer is maybe, but that would not change if the TMX is not built? No the old pipeline is not going anywhere soon.

At the end of this process, I have reached a dilemma. Everything I wrote about the Trans Mountain Expansion project in 2014 and 2015 remains true. We still live in a world that depends on fossil fuels and those fossil fuels need to come from somewhere. Moreover I also have an economic incentive to like the pipeline. As I have written previously:

“I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing Medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to bomb his neighbour.

I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press, and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.”

But I still feel strong unease about the project. At this point the analytical part of my brain cuts in and I consider that I have to go back to relative risks because there is one thing of which I am certain: in 20 years we will still be dependent on fossil fuels as our primary energy source for transportation. Even as we move off fossil fuels for electricity, the transition time for fossil fuels from transportation will be decades long and if we need fossil fuels then we should transport them in the safest means possible. That means projects like Energy East and TMX.

To conclude, in writing this piece I asked myself a number of questions. My answers may be useful to some:

  • Will I go to the open house? Absolutely I want to hear what my friends and neighbours have to say about the project.
  • Will I listen to the concerns of my friends and neighbours and keep an open mind? Yes.
  • Will I chime in myself? Probably.
  • If asked, will I say I support the project? Yes, as long as the process seems fair and the conditions of the approval are met the TMX is the best of the various alternatives to address the West Coast’s continuing fossil fuel needs.
  • Will I be a cheerleader for the TMX? In 2014, I would have said yes, in 2016 I will politely decline

These questions answered there is one other thing I can promise: I will make sure that the falsehoods being repeated by the opponents of the project do not go out unchallenged.

A fair process means listening to all sides and ensuring that good data is used in the process. It means not slandering a panelist because she is a pragmatist who had the temerity to build bridges with industry. There is too much claptrap and misinformation being spread about this project and too many unkind words and ad hominems being flung heedlessly to the crowds. The TMX should be allowed to proceed or fail based on the truth not lies. Finally, I go back to the introduction to my original blog piece:

We live in a society that is dependent on oil and oil products. These products aren’t just refined into gasoline and diesel to run our vehicles; they also serve as the feedstocks for the petrochemical industry which provides the building blocks of our plastics, cell phones and many of the drugs we take when we are sick. As I have written previously, British Columbia is nowhere close to reaching fossil fuel-free status. So let’s acknowledge the reality, we need gasoline, diesel and oil to run our society.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Pipelines, Trans Mountain. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to My latest thoughts on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project

  1. Lisa Pietrow says:

    What would it take for you to go back to being a cheerleader?


  2. Pingback: On pipelines, oil-by-rail, and the relative risk of catastrophic spills in the aquatic environment | A Chemist in Langley

  3. Pingback: Debunking activist myths about the Trans Mountain Expansion Project | A Chemist in Langley

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