'We're anxious to get it in the ground': Pipe yards fill ahead of federal decision on Trans Mountain expansion

Over the last few months, anyone driving on the Trans-Canada Highway near the town of Hope, B.C., has noticed hundreds of large green pipes being stockpiled at a yard adjacent to the freeway.

Trees were cleared before the pipes started to arrive.

All the activity has been hard to miss for those who live and work in the community, like Lloyd Ferman, owner of Ferman’s Transportation.

With the federal government expected to decide the fate of the Trans Mountain expansion project Tuesday, Ferman assumes Ottawa will give the project the green light.

“When the federal government bought it, I thought, ‘They’ve decided,’ because why would they take all that taxpayers money for something that’s not going to be. So I assume myself it’s going ahead.”

More than a thousand pipes are stored in Kamloops for the Trans Mountain expansion. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Ottawa purchased the project for $4.5 billion after Kinder Morgan grew impatient with a series of political, legal and regulatory challenges. Construction began to slowly ramp up in 2018 before the Federal Court of Appeal halted work. The federal government was ordered to redo a portion of its consultation with Indigenous groups, and the further examination of marine life impacts was required. 

It’s become iconic. It’s become representative of so much more than simply building a pipeline.– Donna Kennedy-Glans, former Alberta politician

The project is the twinning of an existing pipeline constructed in the 1950s to transport oil, gasoline, diesel and other products along the 1,150-kilometre route from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C. The pipeline’s capacity would increase from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000.

Trains and trucks hauling pipes for the proposed project have been visible for several weeks in Alberta and B.C., although the timing of the delivery and the federal government’s pending decision seem to be a coincidence.

Trans Mountain said some material that was ordered and in transit prior to the court decision is now arriving at locations in B.C. and Alberta. So far, about 30 per cent of the pipe required for the project has been delivered.

The twinning of the 1,150 kilometre-long Trans Mountain pipeline will nearly triple its capacity to an estimated 890,000 barrels a day and increase traffic off B.C.s coast from approximately five tankers to 34 tankers a month. (CBC News)

Some communities along the pipeline’s route are tired of the constant delays to the project, which was first approved by the federal government in 2016.

Hope’s mayor, Peter Robb, points to the economic boost of having a camp housing 575 workers near the community as one of the reasons he wants construction to begin. He’s also worried about the rapid rise of oil shipments from Alberta to the West Coast.

“We’ve noticed a huge increase in the rail traffic through our community and we definitely would prefer pipeline twinning on existing properties rather than the potential of a rail car disaster in our community,” Robb said.

Hundreds of pipes have arrived at the Trans Mountain storage yard near Hope, B.C. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Those concerns are shared by Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian, who also said his city has to delay several of its own projects because construction of the pipeline would impact a significant portion of his community.

“It’s been a long time,” he said about the delays to the Trans Mountain expansion project. “We’re just ready to get this thing built.”

The project has faced opposition by environmentalists and some Indigenous groups with concerns about the impacts to waterways and the potential of an oil spill, among other issues.

Opponents also question why the federal government would want to build an oil pipeline when the country and world are already suffering the consequences of climate change as natural disasters such as forest fires and floods are becoming more severe.

Some Indigenous groups have wanted to make changes to the project such as proposing alternative routes through their land or moving construction sites to different locations. If the government decides to move ahead with the project, additional conditions could be placed on the project to appease some of the concerns.

Thousands of people have attended events to urge the government to scrap the project. 

A man listens near an effigy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion rally ahead of a decision by Liberal cabinet on the project, in Vancouver, on Sunday June 9, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The pipeline is needed by Alberta’s energy sector as a backlog of oil in the province has lowered oil prices significantly and scared away investment. The pipeline would result in increased tax revenue and royalties for various levels of government.

“Because we don’t have enough pipe capacity, we’ve suffered these huge discounts, and that’s really cost the economy revenue and government revenues,” said Richard Masson, an executive fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and former head of the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission.

“But more than that, the investment climate has really soured, and so companies aren’t investing in new projects because they can’t be sure that they’re actually going to get their oil to market.”

The poor economic conditions in Alberta since oil prices began to collapse in 2014, and the squabbling between the Alberta and B.C. governments are two reasons for such a large spotlight on this project.

There’s even been talk in Alberta about separating from the country.

“It’s become iconic,” said Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former oilpatch executive and Alberta politician, about the Trans Mountain expansion. 

“It’s become representative of so much more than simply building a pipeline.”

While she hopes the federal government makes a definitive decision on the project, she expects it won’t get a full green light to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a qualified answer on Tuesday which will kick it down the road past the election,” Kennedy-Glans said. “It’s kind of like being half pregnant. You know, are we going to do this or aren’t we going to do this?”

The Trans Mountain project would deliver oil, gasoline and diesel to B.C. and export markets in Asia and U.S. states such as Washington and California. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

If the government proceeds with the project, it may provide details about a process to involve Indigenous ownership of the pipeline.

The government has said it does not want to be a long-term owner of the project. Meanwhile, several Indigenous groups in Western Canada have openly expressed interest in purchasing an equity stake in the project.

Ian Anderson, president of Trans Mountain, has also said he sees Indigenous ownership as part of the fabric of how the project moves forward.

Last month, however, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs wrote in an open letter to First Nations warning about the risks of investing in the project, including the likelihood of further legal challenges from Indigenous groups. 

If approved, the Trans Mountain expansion project would take up to three years to construct.

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