For people outside of the province, Alberta’s continued angst over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is baffling. I hear it all the time: The federal government has spent $4.4-billion to buy the pipeline and the expansion project. Justin Trudeau has promised to get it built. What more do Albertans want?
But when Kinder Morgan first applied to twin the existing Trans Mountain line exactly six years ago, it aimed to have oil flowing sometime this month. Now an in-service date is at least three years out. Pipeline projects are now so difficult to execute – and so often delayed – that many supporters will not believe that any one project will be constructed until it’s actually done. No one feels any sense of certainty about any project – whether it be Trans Mountain, Enbridge’s Line 3 or Keystone XL – being built. Pipelines have become symbols of climate change. A court challenge, an ugly oil spill that darkens public sentiment or a change in government could lead to another delay, and hundreds of millions of dollars added to the cost of the build. At some point, it makes a project a no-go.
Mr. Trudeau has also spoken wistfully about shutting down the oil sands, and derisively about the country’s oil interests. His government’s energy laws have made it more difficult to build future pipelines. Trust of Ottawa is and will remain difficult for many Albertans.
That’s why Tuesday’s announcement from Trans Mountain Corp. on the start of right-of-way construction is significant.
This goes beyond preparatory work. There is pipe visible and laid out in the fields west of Edmonton. Trans Mountain, the federal Crown corporation, says that 36-inch-diameter green pipe will be in the ground before Christmas. The end goal is still a tripling of the current capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline to allow for more Canadian oil to be shipped to the West Coast, potentially reaching new, non-U.S. markets and getting a better price for discounted Canadian oil.
Trans Mountain chief executive Ian Anderson says construction in British Columbia’s central interior could begin as early as this spring, and work in the Coquihalla-Hope area and the Fraser Valley could start as early as late summer. Trans Mountain now has 57 support agreements with Indigenous communities between Edmonton and Vancouver Island. Eighteen months ago, that number was 43. About 2,200 people are already at work, including those in Burnaby.
The clock now starts ticking on the 30- to 36-months timeline to complete the whole project, with a “modest” time allocation built in for delays caused by protests, according to Mr. Anderson. Although there were no further details on how much the $7.4-billion cost estimate will increase, he said he wants a commercially viable project that will give Ottawa a worthy asset to sell back to the private sector.
“Scheduling now is a day-to-day activity. As approvals and permits are received, we notify the crews,” Mr. Anderson said at Tuesday’s news conference.
He also said, “This project would not be here today if it weren’t for the tremendous support of both the federal and the provincial governments.”
Beyond the physical work on site, there is also some sense in recent weeks that the frosty relationship between Alberta’s United Conservative Party government and the federal Liberals has thawed just a little bit, if only for a brief period.
Seamus O’Regan says he has already visited Alberta three times since being appointed federal Natural Resources Minister two weeks ago. He and Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage have had frank and engaging backroom discussions.
Ms. Savage still talked about the issues with the contentious C-69 and C-48 laws during the news conference, but it was toned down compared with the anger often directed at Ottawa from her government. There was no discussion of Premier Jason Kenney’s demand that the federal government “guarantee” the completion of the expansion project.
And as Mr. O’Regan noted, it has been a good week for “getting resources to market,” otherwise known as pipeline openings. Enbridge’s Line 3 has come into service on the Canadian side of the border.
“With more hard work, and goodwill, and a continued commitment to getting things done the right way, this pipeline will be completed,” Mr. O’Regan said, praising the past efforts of his predecessor, Amarjeet Sohi.
Liberal Nirmala Naidoo – who ran and lost in Calgary Skyview in October – tweeted Monday: “We told you construction was under way. Now Trans Mountain pipe is about to be laid. Conspiracy theorists – what say you now?” Her words were re-tweeted by Mr. Sohi, who lost his Edmonton seat in the October election, but had to live and breathe the Trans Mountain file up until a couple of weeks ago.
Will the start of the construction clock put a stop to the theories that the federal Liberals bought the project just to let it stall? Will it convince Albertans the Liberals are willing to give up even more political capital to see the project built, even in the face of what will surely be fierce protests in B.C.?
Probably not until the oil is flowing.