Beyond the hippie stereotype: A closer look at the opposition to Trans Mountain

The roots of the opposition to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion run deep.

Opponents of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion engaged in more than just knee-jerk NIMBYism

Thousands of protestors marched from City Hall to downtown Vancouver on November 19, 2016 in opposition of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was approved by Federal cabinet on Nov. 29. (Paul Haavardsrud/CBC)

A conversation about tripling your money on a tech start up might seem out of place at an anti-pipeline march, but not so in Vancouver.

When thousands of protestors made their way from City Hall to downtown a few weeks ago, chatter about stock options and where to go for ramen after the rally could be heard alongside the traditional Indigenous drumming and chants of "Hey, hey, Trudeau, Kinder Morgan's got to go".

Whether or not the prime minister heard those calls, it's become clear since he approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that his decision — no matter how it was cast — wasn't going to find any middle ground.

"If anyone could show me that the Trans Mountain pipeline was actually in Canada's national interest, then I could wrap my head around taking some risk for that, but I don't see how it is," says Mary Cleaver, a Vancouver real estate agent who has steadfastly attended protests — occasionally with her kids — despite a gnawing belief that the effort is futile. 

Mary Cleaver says Canada needs to take a first step to address climate change

6 years ago
Duration 0:40
The Vancouver resident is opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline and will protest against it.

Vancouver, with its weed dispensaries, kombucha ​cafés and growler-toting hipsters, is easy to stereotype. But that doesn't mean the protestors should be dismissed as a bunch of West coast hippies who don't understand what makes the national economy go.

Their concerns run much deeper than any easy caricatures.

Cleaver, who was raised in Calgary, didn't envision herself an environmental activist — right up until she became one. Three years ago, as her youngest daughter was turning four, she started reading predictions from leading climatologists about what will happen to the planet in the next few decades if the world doesn't cut back on emissions.

Some quick math on how old her kids will be by the middle of the century brought her to the stark realization that climate change could affect whether her children may one day choose to have their own kids.

Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion, 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline will move a mix of oil products from Edmonton to a terminal in Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver, where it will be exported to markets in Asia.

That felt unacceptable, so she started making changes. She now drives an electric car, refills laundry bottles with organic detergent, and writes letters to politicians detailing her concerns about pipelines.

"I think it's as much a part of parenting as taking care of their day-to-day needs," she says.

She has no illusions about how much of a difference one person out of seven billion can make, but she believes that solving a global problem means every person, every province, and every country needs to do their small part. For Canada, in her mind, that shouldn't include building new pipelines. 

Industry argues that the world still runs on oil, so denying new infrastructure only handicaps Canada's economy while doing little to constrain global emissions. That doesn't fall on deaf ears, but she also questions how the country can possibly meet its climate change commitments if fossil fuel production keeps climbing.

'Massive Fireball'

More locally, no assurances made to date have put to rest the worry about what a tanker spill would mean for the coastline. Kinder Morgan points out that oil tankers have travelled through the Burrard Inlet for more than 60 years without incident. The company also says that after the expansion, new precautions — including more tugboats guiding each tanker — mean the risk of a spill will barely increase.

Despite those measures and the $1.5 billion pledge the government just made for ocean protection, the prospect of 34 tankers — up from the current five — travelling past pristine Stanley Park to the company's Westridge Marine Terminal each month is a numbers game that doesn't add up for opponents.

A fuel oil spill from a freighter last year, though unrelated to Kinder Morgan, is also doing little to instill confidence among locals.

The final length of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline ends at the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C., where the number of storage tanks will double. (Paul Haavardsrud/CBC)

On the ground, the safety of Kinder Morgan's Burnaby tank farm — which stores oilsands bitumen before the pipeline takes it the final few kilometres to the coast — is also in question. A near tripling of the pipeline's capacity to 890,000 barrels a day means the number of tanks at the facility will double to 26. According to a report prepared for the City of Burnaby, that increase introduces the possibility of a worst-case scenario that includes "a massive fireball supplemented by widely broadcast drops of burning fuel."

The odds of such an extreme event occurring are low, but the potential for some type of industrial accident is still a factor for residents, as well as the Burnaby Fire Department — a critic of the project.

The decision to approve the pipeline will also be subject to any number of court challenges, the strongest of which is expected to come from First Nations, who argue the approval process didn't properly consider their territorial rights.

Vancouver's self-image

None of these concerns addresses the deeper dissonance the Kinder Morgan project poses for those in Vancouver who believe fossil fuels will soon be an anachronism. Beyond its ambitions to be the world's greenest city, Vancouver is staking its economic prosperity on becoming Silicon Valley North, a vision that doesn't include more oil tankers.

"Technology … is already a major economic force in the province," said David Eby, the New Democrat MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey. "Why would we jeopardize that future?"

Almost all of the economic benefits go to Alberta and almost all of the environmental risk is here in British Columbia.- George Hobert, UBC political science professor 

The answer, according to the prime minister and his cabinet, is that a major new export pipeline is in the national interest.

Such logic resonates in Alberta, which will reap the lion's share of the rewards from the pipeline without having to worry about the consequences of a potential tanker spill.

"The risks and the benefits of a project like this are separated significantly over space," said George Hoberg, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, who opposes the project.

"Almost all of the economic benefits go to Alberta and almost all of the environmental risk is here in British Columbia."

George Hoberg says Justin Trudeau faces considerable conflict over pipeline construction in B.C.

6 years ago
Duration 0:35
George Hoberg teaches courses in public policy, environmental policy, and energy policy at UBC

The sharp polarization of the pipeline debate has left little room for empathy between the opposing sides. That's unlikely to change as the proposal makes it way through a line up of legal challenges and anticipated acts of civil disobedience. If the expansion is eventually completed, Cleaver, the accidental environmentalist, will be disheartened but not surprised.

"There's an inevitability to the fossil fuel industry in Canada," she said. "You don't feel like you can do anything about it even if you wanted to."

Although this week didn't go her way, she still doesn't believe the effort is pointless. And neither do others.

When marchers flooded the Cambie Street Bridge a few weeks ago, waving placards and shouting anti-pipeline chants, one young woman chose to walk on the pedestrian side of the barricade rather than the roadway. Every few feet, she would stoop to pick up an old cigarette butt that she'd drop in a bag already half full with other old filters. That the trash wasn't hers didn't seem to matter nor did the Sisyphean nature of the task. She just wanted to leave things a little better than she found them.


Paul Haavardsrud writes for CBC's western business desk in Calgary. He is also a producer on CBC Radio’s national business desk where he talks about business on Radio One in the afternoons. Prior to that he worked for newspapers. On Twitter, he’s @paulhaavardsrud.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?