Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion

Location:

Alberta to British Columbia, Canada

Project risks:

Environmental Destruction, Social Harm

Companies:

  • Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDEV)
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The existing Trans Mountain pipeline runs from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, to Burnaby in British Columbia. It connects with the Trans Mountain Puget Sound Pipeline that transports oil into the US. The TMX project would add a roughly parallel twin pipe, 12 pump stations, and 3 docking berths at the tanker terminal in Burnaby. Credit: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

With the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX), the Canadian government has brought a dying fossil fuel project back to life.[1]  The TMX project was so unpopular among Canadians that Texas-based fossil fuel company Kinder Morgan abandoned it.[2]  The Canadian government could have dropped the project too. Instead, it decided to step in.[3]  The government-owned Canada Development Investment Corporation (CDEV) bought the project in 2018.[4]  With taxpayers’ money, it prevented TMX from dying on the shelves.[5] 

Since it began operations in 1953, the original Trans Mountain pipeline has polluted the land and water of indigenous communities.[6]  Today, almost 70 years later, the Canadian government is building a twin pipeline along the same route to pump even more oil through the country.[7]  This second pipe would almost triple the capacity of the Trans Mountain pipeline system to 890,000 barrels of oil per day.[8]  It would transport tar sands oil from Alberta in central Canada to the Pacific Coast. Canada, through CDEV, also wants to build 12 new pump stations and expand the Westridge Marine Terminal close to Vancouver.[9]  After the TMX expansion, many more tankers would dock at the terminal and ship the oil abroad.[10] [11] 

Dirty Since 1953

The oil that runs through the Trans Mountain pipeline is among the most polluting oil in the world.[12]  It comes from Alberta’s tar sands where oil companies bulldoze the millennia-old boreal forest to extract the tar sands underneath.[13] [14]  In the process, they release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and poison the water.[15]  All they leave behind are gigantic open pits of barren landscape where nothing grows.[16]  To get to the deep bitumen, the oil companies drill wells and inject steam into the ground. This requires a lot of energy and water, which further worsens the operation's overall impact on the environement. [17][18] 

The existing Trans Mountain pipeline has counted more spills than years it has existed. Over the last 68 years, Trans Mountain has spilled 85 times.[19]  It has gone no longer than 4 years without a spill.[20]  The last time that oil polluted the environment was in June 2020 when CDEV’s pipeline leaked 190,000 liters (ca. 1200 barrels) of tar sands oil.[21]  The spill was right above the drinking water aquifer of the Sumas First Nation.[22]  This was the fourth time in 15 years that Trans Mountain oil polluted the land of the Sumas indigenous people.[23] 

CDEV’s TMX pipeline will run mostly parallel to the original Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast. Credit: Stephen O Reilly / Dreamstime.com
The oil that flows through the Trans Mountain pipeline comes from Alberta’s tar sands. Fossil fuel companies destroy the boreal forest and pollute the water to extract the tar sands oil from gigantic open pits. Credit: Jiri Rezac

Risks Too Large to Accept

With the TMX project, Canada is on track to repeat the dirty history of the first Trans Mountain pipe. Especially indigenous communities worry about the health of their water and soil.[24]  Of the 129 indigenous communities affected by TMX, many do not want the leaky pipeline on their land.[25]  Even the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the Canadian government to stop all activities around TMX, as long as some indigenous groups disagree with the project.[26]  Until today, the Canadian government keeps ignoring this call.[27] 

The Tsleil-Waututh indigenous people are among those who oppose TMX.[28]  They live on the shores of the Burrard Inlet, a sea channel on Canada’s west coast. Tsleil-Waututh means “People of the Inlet”.[29]  They hunt and harvest salmon, herring, clams, and birds from the coast and sea.[30]  Up until now, the Tsleil-Waututh have tried to protect and restore the Burrard Inlet that suffers under the ongoing industrialization.[31] 

“Our obligation is not to oil. Our obligation is to our land, our water, our people, our future. This project represents a risk that we cannot take.”

Leah George Wilson, Chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation.[43] 

The Tsleil-Waututh’s way of life is so closely interwoven with the sea that an oil spill could crush them altogether.[32]  The Westridge Marine Terminal and the anchor places for the tankers are less than 4 km (2.5 mi) away from their land.[33]  For this reason, the Tsleil-Waututh assessed what consequences TMX would have for them. They found that the chance of an oil spill at the Westridge Marine Terminal or Burrard Inlet is as high as 79 to 87% over 50 years.[34] 

Such an environmental catastrophe would eradicate the wild resources that are a central part of the Tsleil-Waututh’s diet and culture.[35]  Spilled oil would spread quickly through the Burrard Inlet, blacken the coast and poison the water.[36]  Tar sands oil is a heavy and smeary substance. Some toxic solvents would dissolve into the air and water, and the rest could sink to the seafloor.[37] [38]  Even under the best of circumstances, more than half of the spilled oil would remain in the environment.[39]  It would kill birds and fish, such as the pacific salmon, and break the complex marine food web.[40] [41]  All of this would happen exactly where the Tsleil-Waututh have been living since time immemorial.[42] 

Noise in the Whales’ Underwater World

Even without a single drop of spilled oil, the TMX project would threaten the already endangered whales on Canada’s west coast.[44] [45]  The waters off Vancouver are home to 74 Southern Resident Orcas, a unique whale species.[46]  The animals live together in tight-knit families and feed on salmon.[47] [48]  To hunt the salmon and communicate with each other, the whales use their complex sonar.[49]  They send clicking sounds and whistles into the water. If the sounds hit a salmon or other animals or objects, they return as an echo.[50] 

The tankers that would transport TMX oil are dangerous noisemakers in the underwater world. TMX increases the pipeline’s capacity to such a great degree that more than 400 oil tankers would dock at the Westridge Marine Terminal.[51] All of these tankers would travel through the whales’ hunting grounds.[52]  Their loud engines  and propellers threaten to drown out the whales’ hunting calls and conversations.[53]  The increased tanker traffic from TMX would be fatal for the endangered whales.[54] [55]  At worst, the oil tankers strike and kill the whales.[56]  The tanker noise, together with the risk of collisions and oil spills, puts the 74 remaining whales on the knife edge of extinction.[57] 

Two of the remaining 74 Southern Resident orcas swim in the waters off Canada’s west coast. TMX will put them on the brink of extinction. Credit: Karoline Cullen / Dreamstime.com

TMX Under Pressure

Canada’s buyout of TMX saved the project from death, but it did not save the project from protests. Indigenous people, environmentalists and climate activists are fighting on all fronts against the dirty pipeline. Members of the Tsleil-Waututh and other indigenous groups on Canada’s west coast have built a traditional watch house – the Kwekwecnewtxw – in the pipeline’s path.[58]  From there, they keep a watchful eye on the tar sands pipeline and tanker terminal.[59]  Some land defenders have even taken to the trees that would be cut down for TMX.[60]  High above the ground, they live in tree houses for weeks to stop the bulldozers.[61] 

TMX is so dirty and controversial that CDEV can only find insurers behind closed doors.[62]  The company is afraid that no insurer would back the pipeline if their names were revealed.[63]  In a global week of action, numerous human rights and climate groups from 4 different continents called on insurance companies to stay away from TMX.[64]  So far, 16 insurers have cut ties with TMX.[65]  European insurers Zurich, AXA, Allianz, Talanx, Munich Re, Generali, SCOR and MAPFRE are among those who refuse to insure TMX.[66]  A tidal wave of US insurers joined them, such as AXIS Capital, Chubb, QBE and Suncorp.[67] 

In the meantime, TMX’s price tag has risen by 70% to CAD 21.4 billion (USD 16.8 billion).[68]  The Canadian Minister of Finance assured Canadians that the government will not pump any additional public money into TMX.[69]  Now, Canada must do what is long overdue and finally abandon the dirty TMX pipeline for good.

In June 2021, indigenous leaders and climate activists painted their demands on the pavement in front of the Seattle office of insurance company Liberty Mutual. Credit: Brady Lawrence / Insure Our Future U.S.
Indigenous communities and their supporters protest the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project on the streets of Vancouver in 2019. Credit: Ggw1962 / Dreamstime.com

Groups working on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion: Protect The Inlet, Tsleil-Waututh Sacred Trust, Ecojustice, Stand.earth, Tiny House Warriors: Our Land is Home, Climate Justice Edmonton, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Insure Our Future, Living Oceans Society, Wilderness Committee, Dogwood, 350Vancouver, 350Seattle, Sierra Club, West Coast Environmental Law, Friends of the San Juans, Indigenous Climate Action, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, Waterkeeper Alliance, Return To Athabasca, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility

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