Decision of Solomon

Watershed Sentinel editor Delores Broten unpacks the TMX panel report and finds a surprisingly fair reflection of submissions – now it's up to Justin Trudeau to decide.

Delores Broten

The report of the Ministerial Panel on the Proposed Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) Project (aka the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion) is that most rare of government publications: eminently readable, clear in its mandate and, most unexpectedly, a fair reflection of what the panel was told in its public hearings.

For me, the reading was made even more refreshing because I recognized the voices and viewpoints of friends, colleagues and Watershed Sentinel subscribers woven into the narrative. The panel held 44 public meetings in 11 Alberta and BC communities, at which 650 people spoke and more than 2,000 attended. More than 20,000 email submissions and 35,000 responses to an online questionnaire were also received.

Despite all the problems with access reported from the citizen side of the process, the Panel report even notes the demonstrations outside their hearings. It painstakingly summarizes the views submitted from all citizens and includes many quotations. The report presents a painstaking and fascinating chart of the email responses submitted, including those with only repeat text and those with some personalized content. Of 20,154 emails, 311 were from the BC Independent Contractors, the rest were generated from environmental organizations.

The Panel reported that, broadly, Albertans spoke up for their economic need for access to tidewater to develop alternatives to the US market, while British Columbians felt that there was nothing to justify the risk of oil spills. But they also noted that the interior of BC, including First Nations, was much more friendly to the idea of pipelines than the municipalities on the coast. The Panel is careful to note, however, that even pipeline supporters in Alberta brought up environmental concerns. For example, “presenters said no level of risk is completely acceptable in Jasper National Park, a World Heritage Site worthy of absolute protection.”

“Albertans [asked] whether Canada should be shipping and selling dilbit, rather than upgrading and/or refining oil sands bitumen … out of concern for the environment and for the perceived loss of domestic economic activity.”

“That objection also flags the two other issues: whether the Trans Mountain Pipeline is an appropriate route (in general and in specific locations along the way); and whether Canada should be shipping and selling dilbit, rather than upgrading and/or refining oil sands bitumen — to keep the refinery jobs in Canada and to limit the risk of spilling this more dangerous commodity. Both questions attracted a great deal more discussion in the panel’s later meetings in British Columbia, but it’s worth noting that it was Albertans who first put these issues on the record — out of concern for the environment and for the perceived loss of domestic economic activity.”

“As the panel moved west, opposition increased markedly and in two general areas. There were continuing expressions of concern about general environmental impacts, both local and global. But presenters also raised an increasing number of issues arising from the tension of running a major piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure through an ever-more densely populated area.”

There were also of course, all the issues around consultation and First Nations involvement, as well as spill response, and the Panel includes the recent spill and poor response in the Inner Passage as part of the record.

Although not asked to come to recommendations, the Panel report uses participants’ own words to present many alternatives to the expansion of a pipeline that delivers diluted bitumen to the heart of the harbour of Vancouver. They also go out of their way to note that participants said it is unlikely the current Trans Mountain pipeline, built in 1953, would be approved to run across aquifers in the Fraser Valley if it were proposed today.

In the end, the Panel summarizes the dilemma for the federal cabinet into 6 questions:

  1. Can construction of a new [twinned] Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments?
  2. In the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy, how can policy-makers effectively assess projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline?
  3. How might Cabinet square approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline with its commitment to reconciliation with First Nations and to the UNDRIP principles of “free, prior, and informed consent?”
  4. Given the changed economic and political circumstances, the perceived flaws in the NEB process, and also the criticism of the Ministerial Panel’s own review, how can Canada be confident in its assessment of the project’s economic rewards and risks?
  5. If approved, what route would best serve aquifer, municipal, aquatic and marine safety?
  6. How does federal policy define the terms “social licence” and “Canadian public interest” and their inter-relationships?

It is the regional, economic, and cultural tensions behind these questions which call for the wisdom of Solomon. Whether Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have that wisdom is now the rather appalling question of the day.

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The full report can be read here.

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