Two opinions on the Trans Mountain Pipeline decision

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Last week the Trudeau government approved the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain pipeline. A heated debate has been raging locally for years since the company first made their application to the NEB, though we haven’t often waded into it here on our generally-light-and-cheery lifestyle blog. In fact the last time we approached the subject of pipelines at all was a couple years ago when we told you about how some students had brought together the president of Northern Gateway, activist Tzeporah Berman and the Coastal First Nations for a chat.

Though a thoroughly divisive issue, it was inspiring to see that these parties could still come together and discuss it without gouging each other’s eyes out. So in a similar spirit to that exchange of ideas in 2014, we decided to ask two passionate Vancouverites from different sides of the argument to weigh in on why they think the government’s decision on this file may or may not have been the right one. This is actually the first in a series of opinion pieces where we’ll be squaring one opinion against another, sharing them side by side.

Stockpile of pipeline. Photo: CEPA
Stockpile of pipeline. Photo: CEPA

Max Fawcett (@MaxFawcett) argues in favour of the decision:

And you thought Justin Trudeau was just a pretty face. Last week, our obnoxiously popular Prime Minister showed that he’s got an impressive set of stones on him as well when he approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline — and cost himself some of that popularity in the process. The decision may end up costing the Liberal Party some of its Vancouver-area seats in the 2019 election — indeed, according to some people, it may put them all at risk. So why was he willing to pay such a high price for a pipeline, much less one that’s owned by a company from Texas? Because it’s in the national interest, believe it or not.

I know, I know — you don’t believe it. I could tell you about the billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic activity associated with its construction, or the millions in local property taxes and provincial and federal income taxes that it would generate. But you don’t care about that. I could tell you that blocking a pipeline doesn’t actually prevent those barrels of oil from being produced or consumed, and that instead it just shifts them onto more dangerous modes of transportation or into different parts of the world where considerations about safety and the environment aren’t anywhere near as prominent as they are here. But you don’t care about. I could even tell you that the odds of a spill from the pipeline are vanishingly low, the odds of a spill over open water are even lower, and that the science around spill recovery efforts isn’t nearly as dire as the activist community would have you believe. You don’t care about that either — and in a world where Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, I’m in no position to tell people not to worry about low-probability outcomes.

Here’s what you should care about, then: NIMBYism. I’m guessing that many of you think of NIMBYism as a threat to this city’s future, and regard the people who trade in it as selfish and small-minded. But here’s the thing: if you oppose the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, you’re effectively being an environmental NIMBY. That’s because blocking it doesn’t do anything to reduce the amount of oil that’s consumed in the world, or the emissions that come with it. You’re simply shifting both to a different province, a different country, or a different continent. Worse, you might also be shifting it to a more dangerous mode of transportation — rail — and exposing dozens of communities who happen to live near or astride a set of tracks to the risks associated with moving crude oil in that way. In the end, we get the worst of all worlds: more risk, less tax revenue and job creation, and the same volume of emissions.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why people don’t want the tankers that would carry that oil overseas in our collective back yard. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to burn liquid dinosaurs to fuel our cars, heat our homes, and manufacture our plastics. In a perfect world, our local economy could be supported entirely by app makers, juice bar owners, and fitness fashion entrepreneurs (okay, maybe that isn’t quite so perfect a world after all). But we live in the real world, and as such are obligated to interact with it accordingly. And while there are undeniable impacts associated with any increase in marine traffic, it’s not like the rest of the Port of Vancouver’s cargo is restricted exclusively to rainbows and unicorn farts. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we live — and always have lived — in a port city. We should hold those who move oil through Vancouver’s coastal waters to the highest possible environmental and safety standards, just as we should for every ship carrying potentially dangerous cargo. But that’s a long way from saying they shouldn’t be allowed to do it at all.

That’s why I’m glad that our Prime Minister doesn’t trade in NIMBYism. I’m impressed that our Prime Minister is willing to pursue the national interest, even — and perhaps especially — if it comes at a personal cost, both in terms of his popularity and his partisan objectives. And I suspect, in time, a lot of Lower Mainland residents will come to see it the same way — a lot more, certainly, than his most ardent critics would like to think. His father once famously proclaimed that “reason over passion” was the dominant theme behind his thinking and writing. Based on his decision to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it appears to be the dominant theme behind how his son governs our country as well.

Max Fawcett is the former Editor-In-Chief of Vancouver Magazine, the former editor of Alberta Oil, and a freelance magazine writer. He was born and raised in False Creek, and still thinks it’s the best neighourhood in the city.

Construction of the original Trans Mountain pipeline, 1953. Photo: CEPA
Construction of the original Trans Mountain pipeline, 1953. Photo: CEPA

Kai Nagata (@KaiNagata) argues in opposition of the decision:

During last year’s federal election campaign, APTN news anchor Cheryl McKenzie asked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau if consent from First Nations was needed to build pipelines: “Would no mean no under your government?”

“Absolutely,” replied Trudeau, spreading his arms wide. Fast-forward a year and Trudeau is pushing ahead with Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, despite a clear “no” from First Nations and Native American tribes who would bear the greatest risks.

Even the U.S. Army has a more progressive approach to Indigenous land rights, ruling on Sunday to re-route the Dakota Access pipeline around the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect their drinking water.

Here in Canada, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr says pipeline protests deemed by the government to be non-peaceful will be met by “defence forces,” meaning the military. Again, the U.S. Army just blocked a pipeline. The Canadian army may be deployed to get one built.

Resistance is stiffest around Burrard Inlet, where hundreds of foreign oil tankers would load up with heavy crude in the heart of Tsleil-Waututh First Nation territory. The day before Trudeau’s decision on Kinder Morgan, chief councillor Maureen Thomas flew to Ottawa to hand-deliver a final warning.

“If the Federal Cabinet directs that the Project be approved, against our informed withholding of consent,” wrote Thomas in a letter, “it would reopen the many wounds we have suffered as a result of the Crown’s historic disregard for our Aboriginal title and rights, including in relation to the Project’s predecessor facility.”

That’s an important point. Kinder Morgan is counting on its 2005 purchase of the old Trans Mountain pipeline to smooth its legal passage through B.C. Most of the route, the company argues, has been there since 1953 – and wasn’t blocked by First Nations at the time.

The reality is those communities had very few options in the 1950s. Canadian law at the time prevented “Indians” from voting or even hiring a lawyer. Children were literally dying in residential schools. Court decisions reaffirming Indigenous rights and title were still decades away.

Things have changed. Armed with cases like the Supreme Court’s landmark Tsilhqot’in decision, lawyers will now spend years and millions of dollars sorting out whether Trudeau’s approval of the expansion project was in fact legal. The deeper question for Canadians: was it moral?

We can debate the economics, the risks, the science of carbon emissions or whether spilled bitumen sinks in water. But it’s a basic fact of Canadian law that First Nations have a right to say what happens on their land. Trying to build a pipeline without consent can only erode our moral legitimacy as a country. Whatever the putative gain to the federal treasury, it’s not worth it.

No project can be in the national interest that violates our constitution, or takes us farther from reconciliation. Canada needs economic projects that can obtain basic consent from the people forced to live with them. If we can’t manage that, we need to find new ways to make money.

Kai Nagata works as the Communications Director at Dogwood Initiative. He lives in East Van, not far from where his family first arrived in 1900.