Kinder Morgan braces for Standing Rock-type protests
Energy company already talking to RCMP about security, months before next pipeline might be approved
A person only has to read a few of the stories about the Standing Rock protest or see some of the pictures and videos to get a sense of the hostile stalemate over the construction of the new Dakota Access pipeline.
The protests in North Dakota began small and peaceful, but grew in support and captured the attention of the continent.
The tension continues to escalate as protestors chant, wave flags and set fires, while police have used rubber bullets, mace and Tasers.
It's concerning because these aren't rocket scientists or engineers who were shutting down these pipelines, they are everyday people.— Michael Tran , RBC Capital Markets
The emotional conflict could move north across the border next year if Kinder Morgan receives provincial and federal approval to construct its Trans Mountain Expansion oil pipeline through parts of Alberta and British Columbia.
Even though the project may not go ahead, the Texas-based energy company is already bracing for the sizable security effort it may need. Installing nearly 1,000 kilometres of pipeline around mountains, rivers and other terrain is a challenge in itself, let alone co-ordinating contractors and hundreds of workers with protestors at the door step.
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Pipeline activism is rising and Kinder Morgan knows it.
"I'd be naive if I didn't expect that," said CEO Ian Anderson told reporters recently in Calgary. "Hopefully, it's peaceful. People have the right to express their views publicly and in that regard, we will accept and acknowledge that."
"It's when it goes beyond that that we'll have to be prepared," he added.
Meetings with RCMP
The preparations involve meeting with law enforcement.
"We've been in deep conversations with policing authorities, RCMP in the planning for our project — what can we anticipate and what their role needs to be," said Anderson.
The RCMP, for its part, won't provide any detail about those arrangements. Instead, it's emphasizing its role as an impartial party.
"We will plan for any and all circumstances to ensure police and public safety." said Sgt. Annie Linteau with the Lower Mainland District RCMP as part of an emailed statement. "We make every effort to ensure [protestors] understand where they can safely protest so their message will be heard."
Kinder Morgan has faced criticism from politicians such as the mayors of Burnaby and Vancouver and from some First Nations who do not feel they have been adequately consulted about the $6.8 billion project. Some First Nations also feel they have a veto right, although Ottawa dismissed that notion this week. As with most oil and gas development, there are concerns about the impact on the environment.
Fences and security cameras have become commonplace at pipeline facilities in recent years, but they have not deterred people from breaking in.
Several tampering incidents took place in Ontario over the last year. Last month, up to five major pipelines carrying Canadian oil were shutdown in the U.S. after a co-ordinated effort by an environmental protest group. The Standing Rock protests in North Dakota continue to the point U.S. President Barack Obama has suggested the pipeline may have to be moved.
Kinder Morgan is watching the situation closely because of how the protest suddenly gained massive momentum across North America.
The pipeline in B.C. won't fly under the radar.
"There'll be localized impacts, there will be regional effects and national and international focuses, so we're preparing for all of those both from a security and safety standpoint," said Anderson.
"They'll look for soft spots in the system and it's my job to make sure there aren't any."
Social media factor
The increase in pipeline protests and their severity is because of social media, according to some industry watchers such as Michael Tran, director of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets. Tran grew up in the industrial West Coast community of Kitimat, B.C., but now lives in New York.
He suggests events such as Occupy Wall Street, China's 'umbrella revolution' and, to an extent, the Arab Spring were disorganized and didn't have a specific goal in mind. The pipeline protests, such as the efforts made last month to shut down major pipes, are much more focused.
"It was probably two or three people who organized the protest and it went viral on social media and all of a sudden you had several people hop fences, had bolt cutters and guys who turned valves," he said.
"It started as something relatively benign in terms of protest, to actually growing to something where you are physically doing something to shut down flow."
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The protest group said it planned for months to ensure there wouldn't be an inadvertent oil spill or explosion. Tran suggests an alarming conclusion from the event was that it didn't require much sophistication.
"It's concerning because these aren't rocket scientists or engineers who were shutting down these pipelines, they are everyday people," he said.
All of this is front of mind for Kinder Morgan, while it waits for federal approval next month and an environmental certificate from B.C. shortly after. If it receives the green light, the company expects the governments, along with other proponents such as other First Nations and business groups, to support the project throughout construction and help counter the opposition.
Whether realistic or not, some officials are hopeful the fate of the pipeline won't be as polarizing as is expected.
"We have had a very good working relationship along that route with First Nations as well as with the company," said B.C. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman about the Trans Mountain Expansion. "I look forward to hopefully something that everyone can work with and be happy with when the federal government does make its final decision."
The recent spike in protest activity would suggest otherwise and that's why detailed security planning is already underway well before the project receives a federal government decision to be approved or not.
In May, the National Energy Board recommended the multi-billion dollar pipeline be constructed if 157 conditions are met, including 49 environmental requirements. The NEB described the requirements as achievable for the company.