British Columbia·Analysis

Kinder Morgan decision will have consequences for federal government and beyond

The federal government is set to make a decision on the twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline by Dec.19. B.C. politicians are sending a message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that an approval could have consequences.

Federal government set to make decision on the pipeline project by Dec. 19

A ship receives its load of oil from Kinder Morgan's Westridge loading dock in Burnaby, British Columbia, on June 4, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has staked his political career on turning his city into the world's greenest.

For him, the idea of more oil tankers on the city's coast mixes with that vision like oil and water — not well.

That is why Robertson has been one of the leads on pushing his friend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not to support the Kinder Morgan expansion. The proposal would see the current pipeline twinned from Alberta to Kinder Morgan's facility in Burnaby, B.C., with three times as much crude oil moving every day.

"Putting a much bigger pipeline and seven times the oil tankers into the waters around Vancouver would be a direct threat and potential massive economic impact on Canada and Vancouver in particular," said Robertson on CBC Radio One's The House.

'Perilous politically'

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project at a ministerial panel in Vancouver on Aug. 16, 2016. (CBC)

Robertson is warning that the pipeline approval could hurt not just the economy, but the federal Liberals as well. In 2015, the party won more seats in British Columbia than ever before.

The pipeline expansion has been a polarizing issue in Metro Vancouver for years. At their peak, the protests on Burnaby Mountain in 2014 saw hundreds of people blocking workers from boring holes for Kinder Morgan.

Protesters took to the streets again this weekend, and Robertson predicts if the federal government approves the project, the backlash would be like nothing the region has ever seen. 

A crowd of protesters rally in Vancouver against the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"I think you will see protests like you have never seen before on this one. It is a very, very sensitive issue and people care about it across all walks of life. I think it is perilous politically," said Robertson.

Government MP speaking out

Liberal MP Ron McKinnon has spoken out against Kinder Morgan in the past. His government is set to make a decision on the pipeline expansion by Dec. 19. (Parliament of Canada)

That perilousness has put MP Ron McKinnon in a tough spot. The Liberal backbencher has taken the rare step of speaking out on a controversial issue before his government has stated its position.

​The recently elected representative for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam has sent a letter to Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arguing the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is not in the best interest of his constituents. He is breaking tradition and speaking out now with the hope of influencing his boss's decision. 

"I think the problem here is the risks don't match the benefits. There are benefits absolutely, but the potential risks are catastrophic," said McKinnon. "Even though the likelihood of a spill from a tanker is fairly low, the consequences of that spill would be enormous." 

"Governments give permits, communities give permission. And certainly, we don't have that from that community."

If McKinnon is right that his constituents are heavily opposed to the project, a green light from the Liberals could put his job at serious risk the next time Canadians go to the polls in 2019.

Deadline for decision approaching

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, announces a $1.5-billion national Oceans Protection Plan as Minister of Transport Marc Garneau listens, at HMCS Discovery in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday Nov. 7, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The federal Liberals have set a Dec. 19 deadline to make the decision on whether to grant the approvals necessary for the project to go forward. 

But tensions have already been raised by hints that an approval may be coming. 

The federal government has clearly extended an olive branch to the B.C. government by starting a national oil spill response plan. When implemented, it would satisfy two of the main conditions to gain the province's political approval of the project.

The other hint has been fuelled by the result of the U.S. election.

The Keystone XL pipeline has received a new lease on life after president-elect Donald Trump's win. The Obama administration had rejected the project, but Trump has, in the past, shown strong support.

When asked recently about Keystone XL, though, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said for Canada, the pipeline through the U.S. is no longer crucial because, "it doesn't get oil to export markets in Asia."

That has many thinking that Kinder Morgan's proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes it a more likely route for the federal government to ship to Asian markets. 

The government's third pipeline option is Energy East, a project that has received significant backlash in Liberal pockets of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. If the Liberals are considering the current electoral map, voter anger over a pipeline would be a far greater blow for them in Eastern Canada than in the West. 

Looking at the national interest

Canoeists paddle canoes past the Kinder Morgan facility in Burrard Inlet on May, 22, 2014. There are concerns about the safety of oil storage if Kinder Morgan receives approval to triple the capacity of its pipeline. (Jonathan Hayward/ Canadian Press)

With all of these signs pointing towards a Kinder Morgan approval, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is sending a plea from the no side.

The city of Victoria was one of the original intervenors in the National Energy Board review, and Helps is fearful increased tanker traffic could impact not just Metro Vancouver, but Vancouver Island and all along the coast.

"It would be really sad if they were about politics and winning seats. What this is about is what is in the best interest of Canadians going forward in the long term," said Helps. "I think there are lots of reasons to argue that turning down the pipeline and spending time, energy and resources is in the national interest for the long term."

Helps added, if Trudeau is thinking about politics, Vancouver Island could be a place where the Liberals could win new seats going forward, unlike in the 2015 election.

But that prospect would be in serious jeopardy, she said, if Kinder Morgan is approved.