Trudeau's pipeline remark puts focus on Pacific Northwest LNG project

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have signalled that his cabinet is prepared to sign-off on a massive natural gas pipeline project that will traverse through B.C.'s north.

$7B TransCanada pipeline would move natural gas to B.C. coast for export to Asia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that he does not support a "crude oil pipeline" through B.C.'s Great Bear rainforest, specificity that could allow for Pacific NorthWest's natural gas pipeline to be built. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The Great Bear rainforest is no place for a crude oil pipeline and I haven't changed my opinion on that."

That was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's specific response to a question this week about the proposed Enbridge-backed Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C.'s north.

In opposition, his comments about pipelines moving through this part of the province were less precise. Trudeau did not include the words "crude oil" in earlier declarations, as he did twice on Tuesday.

That phrase would suggest Trudeau isn't necessarily opposed to all pipelines through the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, just those carrying diluted bitumen from the oilsands.

Trudeau's cabinet is facing an Oct. 2 deadline to make a decision on another proposed pipeline in the sensitive region, the Pacific Northwest project natural gas pipeline.

That proposed $7-billion pipeline, which will be built, owned and run by TransCanada, will move natural gas from Fort Saint John near the Alberta border — partially through the same Great Bear rainforest as Northern Gateway — to Port Edward on the coast, to be liquefied for export to Asia.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has a lot riding on approval of the project, which she has called "the largest private-sector investment ever in Canadian history," promising 4,500 construction jobs and 330 operational jobs. Federal support for her preferred pipeline could give her an incentive to support Kinder Morgan's expansion of the Trans Mountain crude pipeline, and allay concerns she has raised about financial benefits for B.C.

The deadline also comes amid mounting pressure from the opposition Conservatives to help the struggling energy sector.

MP Jason Kenney, who is departing Ottawa to take a run at Alberta politics, neatly summed up the grievances Conservatives have with the Liberal approach to pipeline politics in the House this week.

"Tens of thousands of Canadian energy workers have lost their jobs. Our economy is losing billions of dollars in wealth because we can't get our oil to markets. And the Liberals have responded by rolling over on Keystone XL's veto, shutting down the Northern Gateway pipeline with their tanker ban, adding a politicized delay to the approved Trans Mountain pipeline and letting Liberals like Denis Coderre attack Energy East without a response," he said in question period.

"Enough is enough. When will this government stand up for energy workers, for Canadian jobs, and the Canadian economy?"

A fisherman paddles the waters of the Kitimat Arm of the Douglas Channel in northern B.C., near to where Enbridge Inc. hopes to build its Northern Gateway pipeline terminal facility. (Julie Gordon/Reuters)

Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr shot back with "enough is enough of 10 years of failed policies that didn't have one kilometre of pipeline taken to tidewater."

Political hot potato

Signing off on this 900-kilometer gas pipeline would partially neutralize some of the Conservative complaints.

And an endorsement of the project could also be less of a political hot potato for Trudeau, in part because some Indigenous groups steadfastly opposed to Northern Gateway are lining up behind Pacific Northwest.

The Gitxaala Nation, for one, which has taken the federal government to court over inadequate consultations on Northern Gateway, has penned an impact-benefit agreement with TransCanada on this project.

Indeed, four of the five Tsimshian First Nations have given their consent to TransCanada for the pipeline. 

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark addresses the LNG in BC Conference in Vancouver. Clark has been a strong proponent of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project and accompanying TransCanada pipeline. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The project could also be a marginally easier sell to Canadians concerned about environmental stewardship.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel and emits greenhouse gas emissions when burned. But it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, and is the energy source of choice for rapidly developing Asian economies looking to transition away from greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive energy sources like coal.

Liquefied natural gas — which is essentially regular natural gas cooled to minus 162 C and converted to a liquid for easier shipping — is safer to move than crude oil, which, if spilled, can wreak havoc. LNG, by comparison, converts back into its gaseous state when exposed to air and vaporizes quickly when spilled on water, although it can emit potentially combustible plumes of gas.

Lelu Island, the proposed site of the LNG terminal, is located at the mouth of the Skeena River, which is B.C.'s second largest salmon-bearing river. (Brian Huntington)

However, the proposed LNG terminal on Lelu Island in the Skeena River, would be a huge source of emissions: 5.28 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution a year, according to a review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, a marked increase of greenhouse gas emissions both at the provincial (8.5 per cent increase) and national (0.75 per cent increase) level.

The agency has said the project "would be one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in Canada."

In a letter addressed to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, 90 scientists and policy experts said the proposed plant would make it "virtually impossible" for B.C. to meet its GHG reduction targets, a claim B.C.'s environment minister says is unfounded and "doesn't meet reality."

Some First Nations living in the area have also raised concerns that the terminal will damage local eel grass and salmon habitats, food crucial to their livelihood.

A treaty penned by 50 Indigenous groups in Canada and the northern U.S. this week, with a pledge to fight all proposals to build more pipelines, will also be a potential hurdle for all energy infrastructure proponents.

But Carr said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House Friday that there will never be unanimity among any group, and the government of Canada will have to balance competing interests.

"If you were to consult other Indigenous communities, especially those who have spotted opportunity, and the possibility of prosperity for their communities and their children as part of natural resource development ... there will be a difference of opinion. It goes back to the very balance of the government's policy that the environment and the economy go hand-in-hand," he said.


  • This story has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly stated the TransCanada pipeline would carry liquefied natural gas. In fact, the proposed pipeline would carry natural gas to a terminal on the B.C. coast, where it would be liquefied for shipment overseas.
    Sep 24, 2016 11:56 AM ET


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.