Why the Trans Mountain expansion is too politicized

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has called the NEB's conditional approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion "a sham" — but that makes political scientist Duane Bratt question whether he even read the report.

A rebuttal to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's Trans Mountain stance

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has been quoted as saying "there's nothing the company could do to make this acceptable to the West Coast." (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Kinder Morgan's $6.8-billion proposal to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline has been tentatively approved by the National Energy Board, although with 157 conditions. 

This project would nearly triple the size of the company's existing bitumen pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby, boosting its capacity to 890,000 barrels per day. 

There are many political opponents of the project, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. He called the process "a sham" after the NEB released its decision last Wednesday.

The file now goes to the federal government that, unlike the NEB, isn't restricted to examining the scientific and economic aspects of the project. Cabinet may also consider political aspects.

Here's what the Vancouver mayor thinks the federal cabinet should consider: 400,000 job losses in the Great Vancouver area if there is a "catastrophic" oil spill with another 30,000 direct tourism jobs in Vancouver alone.

Did he read the report?

Robertson claimed certain interveners were blocked from participating in the process and Indigenous groups were not properly consulted. In the end, Robertson asserted "there's nothing the company could do to make this acceptable to the West Coast."

These comments show he is not really upset with the NEB process — he is upset with the decision.

In Robertson's view, the correct thing to do would be for the NEB to deny the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion using the same process.

A map of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline is seen in the foreground as Dr. Robert Steedman, chief environment officer of the National Energy Board, releases their report on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

It makes me wonder if Robertson had even read the NEB report.

The comprehensive environmental assessment was the result of nearly two years of public hearings that allowed more than 1,600 participants, including intervenors and commenters, to make arguments for and against the construction and operation of the expanded pipeline.

The NEB also conducted consultations with Indigenous groups.

In the end, the NEB judged the potential impacts of the project, proposed mitigation measures, considered the pipeline's benefits and burdens, balanced the local and national interests, and ultimately determined the Trans Mountain pipeline was indeed in the Canadian public interest.

Who's politicizing now?

The Vancouver mayor also alleged the NEB was politicized by the former Harper government, which flies in the face of the changes the new Liberal government introduced in January.

These changes include analyzing the direct and upstream greenhouse gas emissions linked to the pipeline projects, additional public input and enhanced Indigenous consultations — a new process that was used when the NEB adjudicated the Trans Mountain project.

Protesters at an event held in Burnaby earlier in May chanted, "leave it in the ground, leave it in the ground," in opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline. (CBC)

For example, one of the NEB's conditions was for Trans Mountain to acquire carbon offsets for the greenhouse gas emissions created by the pipeline's construction.

In addition, there were 74 separate Indigenous groups from Alberta and British Columbia that submitted evidence, sometimes using traditional knowledge, to the NEB. This is in addition to the 132 Aboriginal groups engaged by Trans Mountain.

Finally, the Trudeau government has appointed another three-person panel to consult communities along the route about the NEB report.

Weighing the risk, benefit

Robertson emphasized how critical a picturesque ocean environment is to the lower mainland's brand.

More than 90 per cent of the proposed pipeline route matches the existing pipeline, thus reducing the environmental impact.

It is possible that the expanded pipeline might eventually have a leak, or that there may be a tanker accident in the future? The NEB could not guarantee a risk-free project, which does not exist in any field at any time.

For example, if Mayor Robertson wanted to shut down the Trans Mountain pipeline because of the risk of tanker accidents, would he also want to shut down the Port of Vancouver because of the risk of cargo ship accidents?

Instead, the NEB had to assess the likelihood of such accidents, how they could be mitigated and whether the benefits are sufficiently large to justify the risk.

What would Robertson do?

Based on my reading of the NEB report, I wonder how Robertson would have designed a better NEB process.

What evidence would he consider or not consider? What stakeholders would he allow or not allow? Would he want the NEB to have a requirement that, unless a project has unanimous support, it cannot be approved?

It strikes me that Robertson does not want a dispassionate, impartial, environmental assessment based on scientific evidence.

Rather, he, like the former Harper government he has criticized, wants a more politicized process, but politicized in a way that gets the decision he wants.

It is troubling that an elected official cannot differentiate between process and result.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


  • According to a list released by the NEB, there were over 1,600 participants, including intervenors and commenters, who presented opinions, either orally or in written form during the hearing process.
    May 26, 2016 3:12 PM MT


  • A previous version of this opinion column stated there has never been a spill or leak along the Trans Mountain pipeline. In fact, Trans Mountain says on its website that it has reported 82 spills on the pipeline system to the NEB from 1961 to 2014:
    May 25, 2016 10:20 AM MT


Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.