British Columbia·Analysis

Pipeline promises: How to survive Trans Mountain crossfire

Like millions of other British Columbians, the people of the tiny Matsqui First Nation have spent the past few years living in a crossfire of pipeline prognostication. The only difference: any Trans Mountain expansion will literally happen right in their backyards.

Like every other part of controversial pipeline project economic debate is hopelessly polarized

Protesters claim that Kinder Morgan's promises of economic benefits for the Trans Mountain pipeline are wildly exaggerated. (CBC)

Like millions of other British Columbians, the people of the tiny Matsqui First Nation have spent the past few years living in a crossfire of pipeline prognostication.

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion is either Christmas, your birthday and the birth of your first child all rolled into one, or it's just slightly worse than Armaggedon, with oil slicks. Here are the so-called 'facts': you decide.

The only difference for the hundred-or-so residents on the reserve on the shores of the Fraser River north of Abbotsford is that any pipeline twinning would literally happen in their backyards.

And so they had a decision to make.

A very polarizing project

Economic development manager Stanley Morgan makes it clear not all the band's members are cheerleaders for the project. And not all are opposed.

They studied the impacts, had a vote and decided the benefits outweighed the risks. In many ways, that puts them in a perfect position to understand the questions still facing the public in light of Ottawa's decision to approve the project.

In approving the Trans Mountain expansion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accepted the National Energy Board's conclusion that the project is in the country's economic interests. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"It's a very polarizing kind of proposed project. You either love this idea and it gets everybody to work and everybody's happy, or you're completely opposed to this idea because it's going to kill marine habitat or terrestrial habitat," Morgan says.

"The difficult position that our leadership was put in was they had to put aside personal feelings and really figure out what was the potential upside and the potential downside and relay that to the community. And the community would then determine on what they thought was the best road for them."

Wildly different predictions

The predicted economic benefits of the Trans Mountain expansion have been a huge part of Kinder Morgan's sales job to both the public and the government.

They're clearly outlined in the National Energy Board's final report: the $5.5 billion project is expected to generate $1.2 billion in federal and provincial taxes during construction and $3.3 billion in revenues in its first 20 years of service.

The company says construction will support 58,000 person-years of direct and indirect employment. Once it's running, the extra pipeline would support 443 jobs per year, the bulk of them in B.C. And Trans Mountain has promised to work with Aboriginal groups on skill development, community investment and procurement.

A ship receives its load of oil from the Trans Mountain Expansion Project's Westeridge loading dock in Burnaby. Proponents expect the plan to deliver jobs and revenue to B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But that's the company's side of things.

Intervenors claimed the project would have little benefit on local economies and might lower property values.

They also criticized the rosy macro-economic picture painted by a company-commissioned consultant who predicted the expansion would greatly enhance access of Canadian crude producers to new overseas markets, enabling them to claim higher prices for oil and deliver "maximum benefits" to Canadians in the process.

'They don't follow it'

Economist Robyn Allan withdrew from the NEB's review of the project after accusing the board of pre-determining the outcome. The former president and CEO of ICBC says everything from the methodology of the company's analysis to the scope of its considerations is flawed.

Economist Robyn Allan withdrew from the National Energy Board's review of the Trans Mountain pipeline project. (Robyn Allan)

She complains that proponents rely on static economic conditions, without accounting for technological change or the potential that Asian markets might not be as lucrative as hoped for. And while increased oil prices might make producers happy, how will Canadians feel about paying more at the pump?

"The board is supposed to be an objective quasi-judicial body that looks at the public interest. And they have their definition of the public interest and they don't follow it," Allan says.

"The board is supposed to have a situation with these hearings where they listen to experts like the numerous experts hired by different organizations. And in fact, all they did was accept Kinder Morgan's report."

No money-back guarantee

Muddling your way through the NEB's 553-page recommendation report does little to resolve the differences.

The authors lay out the company's position, the positions of the intervenors and the "view of the board" which, on economic issues inevitably favours Kinder Morgan.

But it's not like there's a money-back guarantee if they're wrong.

Which is why the Matsqui First Nation has had to look beyond grand economic predictions to figure out the nuts and bolts of what the Trans Mountain expansion might look like for the reserve's residents.

The pipeline already runs through their territory.

Morgan says the leadership hired companies to assess the risks and also worked extensively with Kinder Morgan to ensure any benefits would be more than just theoretical.

'I can see them deliver here'

"I can only speak for Matsqui's level, and I have already seen Kinder Morgan deliver on promises of training and increased emergency response," he says.

"Without being able to see if they're able to deliver on the whole project, I can see them deliver here in Matsqui, so that gives hope that it could happen. But that's all just speculation on my part."

That's just one man's journey to accepting a pipeline project that appears destined to be the subject of bitter debate for years to come.

Granted the First Nation had the ability to negotiate directly with the company on issues vital to their future and hold them to their word if the promised benefits turn out to be as exaggerated as economists like Allan suggest.

For that, the rest of us have only the federal government. But we've got our own contract with them. It's due for renewal — or cancellation — in October 2019.


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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