Trans Mountain pipeline: How we got here

A look at the Kinder Morgan expansion, decades in the making

This is the first story in a five-part series on the issues surrounding Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, investigating the history, science, Indigenous reaction, politics and economics of the controversial project.

Most people would be surprised at how Kinder Morgan’s current Trans Mountain Pipeline system is embedded within everyday lives and the fabric of B.C. and beyond.

The next time you fly from Vancouver International Airport, consider how the fuel for your aircraft got to the airport. It arrived via a 41-kilometre pipeline through Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby tank farm, currently ground zero of protests in the campaign against the company’s embattled plan to twin its main pipeline running 1,150-km near Edmonton to B.C.

Drive a car? Chances are the gas arrived through that same main pipeline.

Live in Kamloops? It’s the first off-loading point for refined fuels pumped through that main line.

And as part of the complex network of pipelines criss-crossing the continent carrying crude to refineries, a branch of the main line transports Alberta crude to a terminal at Sumas near Abbotsford to feed refineries in northwestern Washington State.

Kinder Morgan’s expansion sits squarely within this context – a continuation of what began more than 70 years ago when a geyser of crude erupted from Leduc No. 1 on Feb. 13, 1947.

Alberta strikes oil in 1947

Geologists had long been convinced oil could be found in Alberta. Beginning in the 1920s, assisted by provincial subsidies and tax incentives, companies began drilling but met with little success.

By many accounts, Leduc No. 1 was to be the last attempt by Imperial Oil to find oil in a promising area surrounding the rural community south of Edmonton.

When it began producing, and with drilling success from other wells following, the Alberta government’s vision of diversifying the province’s economy, combined with the profit incentive of oil companies, began to take hold.

Workers building the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. (Black Press files)

Finding oil was one thing. Transporting it to refineries located elsewhere was another, paving the way for pipeline infrastructure to points east and south, as well as to B.C., to not only supply fuel for the provincial economy but also across the border to new refineries in Washington.

Three pipeline proposals were soon being promoted, and in the end, the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline Company was given the nod. With the legislated backing of the Alberta and federal governments, and with the support of the B.C. government, plans were quickly put into place.

Compared to today’s highly regulated environmental laws surrounding large-scale industrial projects with a multitude of competing interests to be considered, approval was astonishingly swift – just three days of hearings conducted by the federal Board of Transport, a predecessor to today’s National Energy Board.

The board determined the project to be in the public interest, as did politicians and industrialists.

First pipeline finished in 1953

Construction began in 1951 using a small army of workers spread along the 1,150-km route carving through flat terrain and mountainous passes, and alongside rivers.

Finished in 1953, the pipeline had an initial capacity of 150,000 barrels a day, sufficient to meet demand at the time.

“Oil is on the way to range itself beside wheat, lumber and iron as yet another of our great Canadian natural resources on the export list,” Shell Canada president W.M.V. Ash told a Canadian Manufacturers Association audience in Vancouver in March 1953.

The Trans Mountain pipeline became operation in 1953. (Kinder Morgan)

The branch line to Sumas was completed in 1954 so crude could flow to the growing number of refineries in Washington State, a sign that Alberta oil was being integrated into the international scope of the industry.

Over the succeeding years, the fortunes of the pipeline ebbed and flowed depending upon the demands and needs of oil companies seeking the best markets – and prices – for their product.

Still, capacity gradually increased through twinning or looping some sections and by adding pumping stations to meet the needs of customers.

Diversification of product also occurred, so that the pipeline today – unique in Northern America – moves crude as well as refined products.

Oilsands development drives pipeline need

As the Trans Mountain pipeline evolved, so did the nature of oil exploration in Alberta, with growing interest in the Athabasca oilsands.

That accelerated in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, spurred on by the growing demand for oil and encouraged by government assistance and subsidies.

With the volume of heavy crude from the Athabasca region increasing and the resulting need to get the product to refineries, the first sign of things to come took place in 2004 when Trans Mountain began promoting its Anchor Loop project.

This was to be a 160-km line running adjacent to the main line between Hinton, Alta., and a location in B.C. called Rearguard, near Tete Jaune Cache.

This section ran through Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park, but appeared to draw little of the fierce attention now being focused on the expansion project.

The original Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion route. (Kinder Morgan)

Kinder Morgan Canada’s news release of Oct. 31, 2006, announcing National Energy Board approval left little doubt about the company’s long-term intentions, saying the project “will increase the ability of Canadian producers and marketers to access growing markets on the West Coast as well as Asian markets.”

Company president Ian Anderson added this in the same release: “Approval for the Trans Mountain Loop really sets up the next phases of expansion, which will enable us to expand the pipeline system both south (serving markets in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Washington State) and north (to a deepwater port facility in the Kitimat region that would primarily serve markets in Asia).”

Finished in 2008, the Anchor Loop project boosted capacity to 300,000 barrels a day, concentrating on moving heavy crude and, crucially, engineered so that it could be integrated into any further mainline expansion project southward.

Expansion plan unveiled in 2012

Kinder Morgan’s 2006 references to expansion fully surfaced in 2012, when it announced firm commitments from 13 companies – sufficient to justify a second pipeline carrying diluted heavy crude running mostly adjacent to the existing pipeline, nearly tripling its southward capacity to 890,000 barrels a day.

(Kinder Morgan’s plans for Kitimat never did progress, and neither did rival operator Enbridge’s own concept for a pipeline to Kitimat. While approved by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, the Northern Gateway project was ultimately cancelled in 2016 by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.)

The company’s 2013 initial filing seeking approval from the NEB clearly revealed the crude was intended for export via tankers, given plans for expansion of its Westridge Marine Terminal on the Burrard Inlet.

Pipeline opposition grows

But this was not the early 1950s when the current pipeline was built, nor even 10 years ago when the Anchor Loop project was constructed.

Climate change is now a significant public policy issue, driven by what seems to be an increasing number of motivated environmental groups focused on the continuing development of the Alberta oilsands as a multi-pronged polluter, particularly with emissions from extraction of heavy crude and everyday use of refined petroleum products.

Since diluted crude from the oilsands would be pumped through the twinned pipeline, the two became inseparable in the eyes of environmental groups and others.

About two dozen protesters gathered outside the office of Minister of Public Services and Procurement Delta MP Carla Qualtrough on May 4 to call on her to speak out against the planned expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (James Smith/North Delta Reporter)

On B.C.’s coast, there was an additional cause for opposition. There were worries the increase in tanker traffic – from approximately four a month at present, to a projected 34 – would inevitably increase the chances of an oil spill.

Add to this successive court decisions over the years that – while not resulting in complete and clear recognition of aboriginal title – greatly strengthened the hand of First Nations regarding industrial development projects.

The result was a highly effective network of environmental groups and First Nations willing to not only take part in the NEB’s hearings following Kinder Morgan’s formal filing for approval in December 2013, but also in marches and rallies.

Politics becomes a factor

The expansion project also factored in two provincial elections, the first one being in B.C. in 2013 when first breath was given to the New Democrats’ formal opposition to it by then-party leader Adrian Dix during an April 23 election campaign stop in Kamloops.

“I don’t think that the port of Metro Vancouver, as busy a port as it is and successful a port as it is, should become a major oil export port,” said Dix.

Then NDP leader, and head of the opposition, Adrian Dix visited Terrace to talk pipelines in 2012. (Black Press files)

The governing BC Liberals, with Christy Clark as premier, seized on Dix’s remarks, which observers regarded as a factor that helped her win the election.

In October of that year, a first sign of protest emerged when several Greenpeace members blockaded the Westridge Marine Terminal, which would be enlarged to handle the increased number of tankers taking on crude from the twinned pipeline.

And in 2014, arrests at Burnaby Mountain took place as protesters defied civil court injunctions in trying to block Kinder Morgan crews from test drilling as part of the plan to drive a pipeline tunnel through the mountain.

A three-member NEB panel released its report in May 2016, recommending the federal government formally grant Kinder Morgan a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

Expansion plan in ‘public interest’

Further, the board concluded the project is “in the present and future public convenience and necessity and in the Canadian public interest.” It laid down 157 recommendations Kinder Morgan would have to meet.

The onus was now on Trudeau’s newly elected Liberals to follow through.

During the 2015 election campaign, Trudeau had promised a dramatic re-do of how large projects were evaluated, and as public pressure grew to either approve or deny the project, a three-member cabinet committee was struck to provide a review.

In December 2016, Trudeau announced the decision – Kinder Morgan was approved, but at the same time, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project to build a pipeline to Kitimat was denied. With the Trans Mountain expansion the only project approved, both support and opposition intensified.

Significantly, Trudeau adopted the view of the NEB’s determination that economic benefits of the twinning project would be felt in Ontario and in Quebec, as well as in Alberta and in B.C., in his declarations that twinning Trans Mountain was in the national public interest.

While attention was focused federally, Christy Clark’s BC Liberals were also carving out their own requirements for acceptance, and in January 2017, she announced five conditions had been met, chiefly a $1-billion series of payments from Kinder Morgan to finance local government environmental protection projects, measures to protect the coast, and full participation by First Nations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan have continued to disagree on the pipeline. (The Canadian Press)

While those five conditions helped Clark heal a rift with Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley, it did nothing to satisfy B.C.’s New Democrats who promised in last year’s provincial election that if they won, they’d use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop the project.

NDP gov’t hauls out ‘toolbox’

It’s now one of those “tools,” – a reference filing with the Court of Appeal in which the B.C. NDP government seeks clarification on its position that it can control what flows through a pipeline and is then pumped into waiting tankers.

That is now at centre stage in what’s expanded beyond the merits of the expansion project into a political and constitutional battle between B.C. and Alberta, and Ottawa.

Kinder Morgan responded to the political uncertainty in early April by suspending what it calls “non-essential activities and related spending,” while seeking certainty by May 31 that it can actually build the project and that the interests of its shareholders would be protected.

The company said it had spent $1.1 billion on the project so far – the total cost of which has escalated from $5.4 billion in 2013 to $7.4 billion today.

“A company cannot resolve differences between governments,” said Kinder Morgan Canada CEO Steven Kean. “While we have succeeded in all legal challenges to date, a company cannot litigate its way to an in-service pipeline amidst jurisdictional differences between governments,”

In turn, Ottawa is now willing to provide Kinder Morgan with some form of financial security for it to continue with the project, and negotiations with the company are underway as the May 31 deadline approaches.

Federal finance minister Bill Morneau ramped up the prospect of financial involvement May 16 by indicating the federal government would extend support to other pipeline companies should Kinder Morgan back out.

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau has talked about backstopping the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press))

That same day, the Alberta legislature passed Bill 12, giving the Alberta NDP government the authority to restrict shipments of crude and refined products through the existing pipeline, an acknowledged pressure tactic to convince the B.C. government to halt its opposition to the expansion.

“If the path forward for the pipeline through B.C. is not settled soon, I am ready and prepared to turn off the taps,” said Notley. She’s also said Alberta is ready to put cash into the project as a way forward to construction.

READ MORE: B.C. sues Alberta over bill that could ‘turn oil taps off’

Meanwhile, opposition by environmental groups and a number of First Nations continues. Near daily emails datelined “Unceded Coast Salish Territory” through a website called Protect the Inlet offer details of who is likely to be arrested in defiance of a civil court injunction at the gates of Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby tank farm.

The number of those arrested now stands at more than 200 and protest organizers say more than 24,000 people have signed pledges to do “whatever it takes to stop Kinder Morgan.”

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