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Opinion Ottawa needs to show leadership to get compromise in the Trans Mountain pipeline controversy

Thomas Gunton is director of the resource and environmental planning program at Simon Fraser University and is a former deputy minister of environment for B.C. who helped resolve the province’s ‘war in the woods’

Thomas Gunton

Kinder Morgan’s announcement that it is suspending work on its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is generating considerable angst among pipeline supporters across Canada. But the company’s announcement may be a blessing in disguise for both supporters and opponents.

Kinder Morgan’s announcement that it is suspending work on its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is generating considerable angst among pipeline supporters across Canada. But the company’s announcement may be a blessing in disguise for both supporters and opponents.

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The pipeline is highly controversial. Much like previous conflicts in British Columbia pitting development against the environment – such as the “war in the woods,” a series of protests over logging operations in places such as B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound during the 1990s – an escalating pipeline conflict is in no one’s interest.

The preferable course of action is to find compromises that avoid escalating battles by meeting the interests of all the parties involved. And Kinder Morgan may be providing the opportunity to do this.

Supporters of the pipeline argue that it is essential to transport Canadian oil to world market prices, and that pipelines are the safest way to do this. They point out that Kinder Morgan has gone through an extensive review process that concluded the project was in Canada’s public interest and that new measures to address climate change have been implemented as a result of the pipeline’s approval.

Opponents point out that the federal government’s own evaluation of the Kinder Morgan review process concluded that it was deficient, a view recently confirmed by the government’s decision to supersede the National Energy Board and reform the review process.

They also point out that the pipeline generates significant risks to B.C.’s coast, with a 77-per-cent probability of a port oil spill and a 56-per-cent median probability of a tanker spill. This is why the federal government imposed a tanker ban to protect B.C.’s North Coast, (but for some reason left out protection of the South Coast). They also question the logic of saying that Canada’s climate-change strategy hinges on building a major oil pipeline.

Clearly, there are strong differences in opinion, with valid points on both sides of the debate. However, no matter which side one supports, everyone can agree that an escalating conflict of protests, arrests and costly court battles that pits provinces against one another will leave us all worse off.

The solution is to look for a compromise that can meet the interests of those who want to get their oil to market and those who want to protect the environment. Fortunately, there may be a compromise that could work.

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First, Canada needs to show clearly how it will meet its climate-change targets and what level of oil expansion is consistent with this.

Second, although the oil market has weakened since all the new pipelines were proposed, some new pipelines are needed to ship the half-a-million barrels a day of new oil projects under construction, and possibly more.

After the recent cancellation of the Energy East oil pipeline project, there are three remaining proposed pipelines approved by Canada.

Two of the proposed pipelines – Enbridge Line 3 and Keystone XL – would add 1.2 million barrels of new capacity, which is more than enough to meet forecast need. These two pipelines are partially built and connect to world price markets at tidewater in the United States, thus avoiding the so-called Alberta price discount. And they have lower environmental risks than Kinder Morgan because they do not require tanker traffic along B.C.’s coast.

Therefore, Enbridge Line 3 and Keystone come much closer than Kinder Morgan to meeting the interests of both sides of getting oil to world market prices with lower environmental risk. This competition from other pipelines with lower environmental risk in a weaker oil market is no doubt one of the reasons Kinder Morgan is having second thoughts.

Other options worth considering include reconfiguring Kinder Morgan’s proposal to increase shipments to refineries in Washington State, thus avoiding increased tanker traffic, and using new technologies such as solid pellets that remove the risk of spills. Alberta could also focus on increasing the value of its oil by refining it instead of shipping it out as raw product.

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Compromises are hard to achieve and never fully satisfy the interests of all parties. But it is time for the federal government to show national leadership by avoiding the urge to “get tough,” and instead forge a compromise that meets the economic needs of the oil sector with lower risks to the environment.

Justin Trudeau says the federal government remains “determined” to see the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built after Kinder Morgan hit pause on the project, but the Prime Minister wouldn’t say what Ottawa’s next steps would be. The Canadian Press
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