In a Burnaby, B.C., hotel conference room, the next episode of Canada's long-running pipeline soap opera began Tuesday morning. After controversy and delay, the National Energy Board hearing into the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to the B.C. coast will get underway, with each side feeling that nothing less than Canada's future is at stake.
How they define that future is where the differences begin. Is it a country with market access for its most important commodity? Or will Canada put its money where its mouth is by taking steps to battle climate change and better engage with First Nations communities.
So, let the fun begin.
'Black gold pours into B.C.'
The existing Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the 1950s before pesky things like public consultation. A supplement in the Vancouver Sun to mark the opening of the pipeline declared 'Black Gold Pours into B.C.'
Trans Mountain has carried oil from the Edmonton area to the B.C. coast for 60 years. Spurred on by the growth in the oilsands, Kinder Morgan, the company that now owns Trans Mountain, put forward an application to twin the pipeline to triple the capacity to nearly 900,000 barrels a day.
'If we could get our oil to the world market, it would drive investment in this country significantly.' - Joe Ceci, Alberta finance minister
Trans Mountain had a few clear advantages over the probably doomed Northern Gateway project. The expansion would lie mostly along the existing right of way for the 1950s pipeline, which should have made negotiations easier.
The one clear disadvantage is that the pipeline runs through Metro Vancouver, the home of Canada's green movement. There are no "Black Gold" headlines in the Vancouver Sun these days.
The case for Trans Mountain
It's clear that Alberta is in a bind right now. Its oil, Western Canada Select, is trading around $15 US a barrel, partly because it is located at the end of the pipe, far from markets that can refine heavy oil. Alberta simply needs access to more markets.
In an interview on CBC Radio's The House this past weekend, Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci made the point repeatedly that lower oil prices have a ripple effect on the entire economy and market access for Alberta's oil is important to get the national economy back on track.
"That's key, not only for this province, but for cousins across the country," said Ceci. "If we could get our oil to the world market, it would drive investment in this country significantly."
That message has thus far fallen on deaf ears in much of Canada. At a premiers meeting In July, the provinces created a national energy strategy that included a role for pipelines. But last week B.C. said that it did not support Trans Mountain, partly because Kinder Morgan has not provided enough information around its proposed spill prevention program.
First Nations support
Kinder Morgan has also struggled with First Nations support. The company said it consulted with 133 First Nations and aboriginal communities in Alberta and B.C. As of Friday, it had letters of support from 30 First Nations, but did not say how many of them were located directly along the pipeline route.
'It's been frustrating for all the intervenors, regardless of where they stand on the pipeline.' - Sven Biggs, ForestEthics
Many along the route remain opposed, including the Katzie First Nation, with reserves along the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose traditional territory includes the Burrard Inlet, the end point of the pipeline.
If the Northern Gateway project is any indicator, Trans Mountain will need to bring First Nations onside as a condition of any possible permit.
Fierce opposition in Vancouver
Opposition to Trans Mountain remains fierce in the Lower Mainland, where protests on Burnaby Mountain went on for weeks in the fall of 2014. Vancouver has formally opposed the project, as has Burnaby, the location of the existing marine terminal.
- Metro Vancouver to formally oppose Trans Mountain pipeline
- Kinder Morgan working to meet Trans Mountain expansion conditions, says company president
Part of the problem has been the streamlined National Energy Board process, in which there is no opportunity to directly cross-examine representatives from Kinder Morgan in a hearing. Questions were posed by letter, with no guarantee of a response. Vancouver and Burnaby said nearly half of the questions the two cities posed to Kinder Morgan were not answered.
"It's been frustrating for all the intervenors, regardless of where they stand on the pipeline," said Sven Biggs, a campaigner for ForestEthics.
ForestEthics was one of the environmental groups that stood on an Edmonton stage in November with executives from Alberta's government and the energy industry to announce the province's climate change policy.
ForestEthics remains opposed to Trans Mountain, but along with many other individuals and organizations, it is not intervening in the hearing because it feels the process is broken.
Ultimately a political decision
The hearings will carry on in Burnaby until Jan. 29, before moving to Calgary for four more days. After that, the review panel has three months to make a recommendation. The final decision will be made by the federal cabinet 90 days after that, putting the decision timeline into August
It's clear what decision Alberta will be looking for. Ceci said that the federal government has a role to play in getting oil to tidewater. In light of the Trans Mountain hearings, it's pretty clear what he was talking about.
On Monday, before a cabinet retreat, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said the National Energy Board process needs to be modernized and that Canadians need to feel confident in the decision that the board makes. But he also said that low oil prices have not deterred the government from its goal of moving resources to tidewater.
That is a statement that can lend hope to either side of this particular fight.