VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Citizens of Canada’s First Nations and their allies are mounting last-ditch challenges to two massive fossil fuel pipelines that already are under construction and have strong government backing.
In campaigns reminiscent of the Standing Rock protests in the U.S. Great Plains, the anti-pipeline actions in Canada’s far West feature acts of civil disobedience including blockading roads and construction sites, and coordinated campaigns against banks and underwriters that are financing the pipelines. Dozens of protesters have been arrested. But they say they are determined to continue their resistance.
“We have to protect the land and the water no matter what. Our survival depends on it,” said Mike McKenzie, an anti-pipeline activist who is a citizen of the Secwepemc Nation. He said he had to move off his ancestral territory to escape harassment by local law enforcement.
The activists’ targets are the Coastal GasLink pipeline to carry fracked gas from northeastern British Columbia to a Pacific port for export to Asia; and the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to near Vancouver, where the heavy oil is to be sent to Asia as well as refineries in Washington State.
With both pipelines progressing, their opponents are fighting seemingly long odds. But pipeline activists have beaten tough odds before. While the federal government’s courts and its pipeline regulatory agency defeated numerous challenges by the activists, they recognize that a pipeline has zero value until its last mile is connected.
“In order to be 1 percent useful, it needs to be 100 percent complete,” said lawyer Eugene Kung of West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver, who is fighting the Trans Mountain pipeline.
If completed, the pipelines would represent the two biggest losses for an anti-fossil fuel movement that has killed more than 20 proposals to export gas or oil over the last 15 years at sites stretching from British Columbia to central California.
The involvement of the Indigenous activists is complicated by the fact that many First Nations leaders, elected under Canada’s Indian Act, have made agreements with the pipeline builders — while some traditional hereditary leaders have opposed it. In McKenzie’s Secwepemc Nation, some elected chiefs say the TMX pipeline’s environmental risks are manageable, and four out of 17 signed long-term agreements for shared benefits between their communities and the pipeline. Coastal GasLink said it has already distributed contracts worth $825 million to First Nations and other locals along the pipeline route.
Meanwhile, some of the more traditional leaders within First Nations are opposed, along with some First Nations members.
Government backing key to both projects
British Columbia’s pipelines broke through with forceful government backing.
Coastal GasLink, owned by Calgary-based TC Energy, launched in 2018 with full-throated endorsement by the British Columbia government, including Premier John Horgan.
The same year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s C$4.5-billion acquisition of Trans Mountain secured its expansion project just after the Indigenous activists and their allies, against seemingly impossible odds, hounded the pipeline’s original developer, Texas-based Kinder Morgan, into essentially abandoning the project.
“This is a pipeline in the national interest and it will get built,” Prime Minister Trudeau said at the time.
The significance of Trudeau’s move is hard to overstate. Trans Mountain’s expansion will triple its capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day. The new line terminates at a shipping terminal in Burnaby, east of Vancouver, where the oil can be shipped for refining in Asia, and spur lines and barges also link the pipeline to Washington state’s refineries.
Mark Jaccard, a sustainable energy professor at Simon Fraser University, calculated that producing tar sands oil known as bitumen and pumping it to Burnaby would release the equivalent of 7.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in Alberta and British Columbia— as much as 2.2 million cars — while refining, distributing and burning the bitumen would release another 71 million metric tons overseas.
The federal takeover changed the playbook for those involved in the pipeline resistance.
“Our strategy was … making the projects such a headache (that) the companies were willing to abandon them. We got to that point with Trans Mountain. But we didn’t prepare for a world in which the federal government bought the pipeline and assumed all the risk around it,” said Sven Biggs of Stand.earth, an activist group operating from offices in Vancouver, San Francisco and Bellingham, Washington.
While the British Columbia provincial government has bitterly contested the Trans Mountain oil pipeline crossing its territory from Alberta, it has enthusiastically embraced the Coastal GasLink pipeline farther north that would carry fracked gas from British Columbia.
The 415-mile-long Coastal GasLink pipeline is designed to initially export 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day to Kitimat, located southeast of Prince Rupert. There, the fracked gas is to be liquified for export, emitting 4 million metric tons of CO2 annually. The capacity of the pipeline and export facility could be expanded in future phases.
Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink began building in 2019 and intend to begin pumping by the end of 2022 and in 2023, respectively. Each is roughly one-quarter built, but work has slowed recently amidst environmental violations and safety incidents, including some connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
As of early last month, about 8 percent of the Trans Mountain route remained to be finalized. The Coldwater band, a First Nation situated approximately 60 miles southwest of Kamloops, is pushing the Canada Energy Regulator to reject the proposed route. The Coldwater Band is currently holding hearings on the risks Trans Mountain poses to its drinking water aquifer reserve in Nlaka’pamux Nation territory.
In October, Miranda Dick laid down a blanket outside a Trans Mountain gate near Mission Flats, B.C., a community adjacent to the Thompson River, which Trans Mountain has drilled beneath repeatedly to install pipe. On the blanket, Dick’s sister cut her hair off. . The ceremonial act symbolized the grief and loss Trans Mountain brings her. Moments later, she was arrested with others for breaching an injunction prohibiting unauthorized access to Trans Mountain work sites.
The 300-mile-long Thompson River is one of roughly 250 salmon-supporting streams and rivers in the Fraser River watershed transected by Trans Mountain. It hosts one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world. The resulting threat to salmon populations is the project’s single greatest risk, says Dick, the daughter of hereditary Chief Sawses, who was also arrested two days prior.
“I want to protect clean water for the salmon and our livelihoods, not to mention the other links in the chain. The bears, the eagles, everything that lives off of salmon,” said Dick.
Other activists continue hammering the financial front. Trudeau unveiled a revamped climate plan in December, but heightened climate action by his government may not ease the pressure on B.C.’s pipeline projects. In fact, in the hands of expert activism, it may do the opposite.
More than 100 Canadian economists and policy experts signed a letter to Trudeau questioning the viability of the Trans Mountain expansion in September 2020. The letter noted weakened oil demand amidst the pandemic and doubts from oil giants such as Shell and BP about whether demand would “fully recover” after COVID-19. It also cited the International Energy Agency’s conclusion that oil demand must decline by nearly a third over the next two decades to limit global warming.
Meanwhile, federal agencies and auditors have sharpened the experts’ attack on Trans Mountain’s viability. Just before Trudeau’s climate policy announcement, the Canada Energy Regulator, the agency that oversees the Trans Mountain expansion, reported that tougher policies might cut oil use and thus eliminate the need for additional pipelines.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer echoed that finding a few weeks after Trudeau’s announcement, writing that the federal government could lose money on Trans Mountain under strengthened climate policy.
Adding uncertainty to the financial stability of the project, at least three of the pipeline’s 11 big insurers recently walked away from Trans Mountain, under pressure from environmental campaigners.
Confrontation here, there, everywhere
Confrontation continues. On the coast and in interior British Columbia, people are regularly arrested for obstructing Trans Mountain work sites.
Frequent activity occurs in Burnaby, B.C., the terminus of Trans Mountain in the traditional territory of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Coast Salish community members occupy a watch house in Burnaby, where they keep vigil and host ceremonies to oppose the project. About three miles south of the watch house, activists inhabit a treehouse camp from which they work to delay Trans Mountain’s plan to clear roughly 1,300 trees adjacent to the salmon-bearing Brunette River.
Further resistance occurs along the pipeline route, such as in Secwepemc territory, where a group is fighting Trans Mountain from a camp of tiny homes near the Blue River community, about 110 miles northeast of Kamloops.
Southwest of that camp, Romilly Cavanaugh was arrested in October with others after chaining herself to a worksite gate to delay construction. An environmental engineer who briefly worked for Trans Mountain in the 1990s, Cavanaugh said she got involved on the frontlines because she had no other choice.
“There is no way to take a dirty industry like that and make it clean,” she said.
Cavanaugh cites the carbon emissions the pipelines will spur and limited advancements in technology for cleaning up oil spills. Trans Mountain will increase tanker traffic by at least sevenfold in the Salish Sea waters shared by the U.S. and Canada.
Data from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation and Transport Canada lends credence to Cavanaugh’s concern. According to both the Canadian agency and the global tanker spill advisory organization, no more than 15 percent of oil is recovered in a typical spill. And spill recovery may be even lower for spills of the diluted bitumen carried by Trans Mountain, which is the heaviest form of crude. It tends to sink to the bottom of the sea.
“From my perspective, civil disobedience is the only option we have left,” said Cavanaugh.
Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia is a yearlong project by nonprofit news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest. To be notified when stories in this series are published, subscribe to a weekly newsletter for updates: bit.ly/invw-newsletter