Trans Mountain expansion project has been a COVID-free zone, says CEO

When the pandemic began, many feared that major resource projects like the Trans Mountain expansion could become vectors for the novel coronavirus in remote and Indigenous communities. But the government-owned pipeline says it has managed to keep its workforce COVID-free.

At an annual public meeting, the government-owned project was accused of holding back information

Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Kamloops, B.C., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The government-owned Trans Mountain pipeline says it has managed to keep its workforce COVID-free — at a cost of more than $1 million.

When the pandemic began, many feared that major resource projects like the Trans Mountain expansion could become vectors for the novel coronavirus in remote and Indigenous communities.

In a public update issued this week, Trans Mountain president and CEO Ian Anderson said that, as of the end of September, the company had spent an additional $1.2 million on pandemic safety measures such as regular temperature checks, personal protective equipment, new hygiene practices and workplace adjustments to allow for physical distancing.

So far, he said, those measures have paid off.

"I am pleased to report that we have had no workplace transmitted infections of COVID-19 across the project or the company," Anderson said.

Trans Mountain briefed the public at the virtual annual general meeting of the Canadian Development and Investment Corporation (CDEV) on Tuesday. CDEV manages the corporate investments of the Canadian government, such as Trans Mountain.

The federal government purchased the pipeline from Kinder Morgan in 2018 for $4.5 billion, after several court challenges and vocal opposition to the pipeline's expansion project spooked the Texas-based company. 

The newly created Crown corporation announced in February that the cost of construction had increased to $12.6 billion. On Tuesday, however, Anderson said the project is still within its budget and on track for completion in December 2022.

"Despite the unprecedented challenge of this worldwide pandemic, Trans Mountain's expansion project costs and schedule remain intact," Anderson said.

Transparency concerns 

Typically, these meetings are opportunities for CDEV and its corporate entities to directly answer the public's questions. Due to the pandemic, CDEV opted to solicit questions beforehand and upload pre-recorded statements from the heads of its three subsidiaries. 

But NDP finance critic Peter Julian told CBC News Wednesday he still has unanswered questions about construction costs.

"We haven't gotten responses. They have not been forthcoming," he told CBC News. "The complete lack of transparency is a major concern."

Eugene Kung, staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said the virtual meeting didn't provide meaningful answers about the multi-billion dollar project. 

"What we saw was some prepared and scripted remarks," Kung said. "That didn't particularly shine any more light on Trans Mountain than we knew."

Trans Mountain, Kung said, needs to provide the public with an updated economic forecast that shows whether the pipeline is still viable in the wake of recent market changes.

Kung said it's "infuriating and astonishing" that it was easier to get information about Trans Mountain when it was owned by a private sector company.

Trans Mountain President Ian Anderson pauses while speaking during the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade's annual Energy Forum, in Vancouver on Thursday, November 30, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

 CDEV's board chair, Steve Swaffield, said at the annual general meeting on Tuesday that it fielded a large number of questions and comments from the public.

"We received many emails, almost all of which were statements or opinions both against and in favour of the Trans Mountain expansion project," Swaffield said.

CDEV followed up with responses to the messages that were "specific questions," he said.

In a statement to CBC News Thursday night, CDEV said Trans Mountain didn't receive Julian's questions. CDEV Associate Matt Mackay added it has been open about the project and routinely discloses quarterly reports providing Canadians and parliamentarians updates on their financials. 

"The government of Canada does not intend to be the long-term owner of Trans Mountain Corporation, but is committed to accountability and transparency," he said. 

Expansion 16% complete

The Trans Mountain expansion project was 16.2 per cent complete on Sept. 30 and has employed approximately 4,200 people, Anderson said. Construction is expected to peak in 2021, he said, making it a major driver of B.C. and Alberta's COVID-19 economic recovery.

Although Trans Mountain has not published its latest financial results, Anderson said it had spent $880 million in capital expenditures over the last quarter for building the expansion. In the first nine months of 2020, he said, it spent $2.1 billion on construction.

Trans Mountain shipped 325,000 barrels of oil in the third quarter, exceeding its 2019 forecast of 316,000 barrels per day. But for the whole year so far, the pipeline is under-performing, averaging at 305,000 barrels per day.

The twinning of the 1,150 kilometre-long Trans Mountain pipeline will nearly triple its capacity to an estimated 890,000 barrels a day and crude oil-carrying tanker traffic from the Westridge Marine Terminal could increase from about three vessels a month to one a day.
The twinning of the 1,150 kilometre-long Trans Mountain pipeline will nearly triple its capacity to an estimated 890,000 barrels a day. (CBC)

When it's finished, the Trans Mountain expansion project will twin the existing Alberta-to-British Columbia line and boost the pipeline's capacity from about 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day.

The expanded pipeline will directly produce 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which has been factored into Canada's emission targets.

Although it's difficult to account for indirect emissions, Environment and Climate Change Canada estimates the upstream emissions add 21 and 26 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, based on 2015 calculations. Those numbers don't account for land use changes and electricity or other fuels used elsewhere.


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca