By Graham Thomson July 13, 2012
It is the forgotten pipeline — not as controversial or as expensive as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C.
Yet, plans to twin the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., will cost $4 billion and are controversial in their own quiet way.
It’s just that the proposal to expand the Kinder Morgan line isn’t grabbing the kind of headlines plaguing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. The 1,200-kilometre Gateway project would be brand new, would involve virgin land untouched by pipelines and would be dedicated to getting oilsands bitumen to tanker ships in Kitimat for transport to Asia.
The Kinder Morgan proposal, on the other hand, would simply add to what is already there. You might not even know that the Kinder Morgan pipeline exists, that it currently ships 300,000 barrels of oil a day from Edmonton to the Lower Mainland or that almost 30 per cent of the oil is loaded on to tankers for shipment to California and Asia.
If you didn’t know that, you certainly didn’t know that the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain line carries not just regular crude, but also bitumen.
That’s right, bitumen from the oilsands — public enemy No. 1 to environmentalists in British Columbia — is already entering the province literally under protesters’ feet. Twinning the Kinder Morgan line would allow the company to ship up to 750,000 barrels a day to B.C.
You probably didn’t know that because the Trans Mountain line hasn’t been making headlines lately. It’s been in operation for almost 60 years and, even though there have been spills, it hasn’t been called “disgraceful” by the B.C. premier or compared to the Keystone Kops by U.S. safety officials, who this week released a report into a massive spill from an Enbridge pipeline in 2010 in Michigan. Enbridge has had its reputation so badly tarnished, it should adopt Snidely Whiplash as its corporate mascot.
This week, federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said plans for Northern Gateway should be scrapped based on Enbridge’s incompetent handling of the Michigan spill. Even B.C. Premier Christy Clark was forced to slap down Enbridge by saying she would never allow the company to operate in B.C. the way it did in Michigan. It was a meaningless statement, akin to saying she wouldn’t allow tanker ships to operate like the Titanic.
Despite her measured criticism of Enbridge, Clark was careful to stick to her position not to have a position on Northern Gateway, afraid that declaring herself either for or against the pipeline will alienate voters on either side of the debate as she prepares for a 2013 provincial election. It might not make a difference. Based on public opinion polls, she is headed to defeat, in which case it will be a newly elected NDP government in B.C. that leads the fight against Enbridge (and the federal Conservative government), delaying the pipeline, if not outright killing it.
That brings us back to Plan B: twinning Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.
Compared to Northern Gateway, this might have a much better chance of success. The pipeline already has a right of way from Edmonton to Burnaby and it has already been twinned in Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. That’s right, we already have an oil pipeline transporting bitumen through pristine wilderness. I raise this not to inflame debate, but to point out that pipelines are a fact of life. Anyone who drives a car in B.C., including environmentalists, should think about that next time they fill up. If you want gasoline, it has to come from somewhere, and getting it to you usually involves a pipeline.
If you have to transport oil, statistically, the safest way to do it is by pipeline. The operative phrase here is “have to.”
British Columbians have to drive cars, and so there’s a reasonable expectation that a pipeline from Alberta has to deliver the oil. But why should British Columbians accept any new pipeline, Northern Gateway or a twinned Trans Mountain, if its main priority is to ship oil offshore? What’s in it for B.C.?
That’s the big unanswered question in this debate. Oh, the governments of Alberta and Canada point to the jobs created by pipeline construction and argue that a strong Alberta economy, made stronger by selling more oil offshore, means a strong regional economy. It’s a rising-tide-floats-all-boats argument, but it’s less convincing if the boat just ran aground in the Douglas Channel and is leaking millions of litres of oil into the water.
The people of B.C. would shoulder the risk of a catastrophic spill, but not directly share in the benefits.
That’s why there has been unofficial speculation from Alberta officials that we could share our profits with B.C. — but that would likely be unpopular in Alberta and would make it look like we’re trying to bribe our B.C. neighbours, or that we’re putting a price tag on their environment.
Building a pipeline from Edmonton to the West Coast will be expensive and involve crossing 1,200 kilometres of mountains and rivers — but the most daunting obstacle of all is the legitimate concern of British Columbians.
Graham Thomson is a columnist with the Edmonton Journal.
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