In just under a week, the people living along the proposed route of the long-stalled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion could learn its fate.
The debate over the expansion project, which would triple the amount of diluted bitumen and other oil products moving from Alberta to Burnaby for international shipment, has pitted individuals, ideologies — and even provinces — against one another.
But there are more than two sides to this debate, as The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti discovered when she set out on a road trip along the expansion’s proposed 1,150 km route, from Edmonton, Alta., to the B.C. coast.
Tremonti met a pipeline worker for whom Trans Mountain would mean work closer to home, and time with his young family. She also visited a school that has refused money to endorse the pipeline passing under its fields. And in Burnaby, she met a man who argues that the long-running pipeline debate has descended into a for-or-against mentality, where tribal loyalties beat informed opinion.
Consistent opposition and legal challenges have stalled construction of the expansion since its approval in 2016. In August, the Federal Appeal Court overturned Ottawa's approval of the project, citing inadequate consultation with Indigenous people.
The ruling also found the National Energy Board did not properly consider the impact of increased tanker traffic on the region’s endangered southern resident killer whales.
That decision was announced minutes before Kinder Morgan shareholders voted to approve the $4.5 billion sale of the pipeline to the federal government.
After further consultation and an environmental review by NEB, the government is expected to make its final decision by June 18.
In her documentary, Tremonti meets the people whose lives have become tangled up in years of divisive debate. Here are some of their voices.
Family business relies on the oil industry
For Wendy Berdahl, building the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is about protecting her father’s legacy.
Berdahl and her siblings run Wynn Machine & Manufacturing — started by her father 45 years ago — in Edmonton. The business supplies machine parts and accessories to the oil industry.
“I'm here every day because of my dad … he always said, ‘I’m building this for a legacy for my children.’”
But in recent years business has suffered, and the company has had to lay off workers.
“It really crashed fast,” she told Tremonti. “We literally went from like 10 million dollars a year, to two.”
"We used to have 30 employees. Now we're down to eleven and we've been like that for the last four years.”
The last two years have been the worst due to uncertainty over the expansion, Berdahl said, explaining that big companies don’t want to drill if “they can’t get their oil to market,” and new investors won’t come “until they see oil flowing.”
If it doesn't get better, we're gonna probably have to start selling some of the buildings and ... actually downsize.
- Wendy Berdahl
In a January report, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates that construction of the expansion would create 8,000 jobs at its peak.
The analysis also noted that the project would allow Canadian producers to sell much more oil at world prices, which would reduce the discount that is currently applied.
"That would translate into a $6 billion annual impact on GDP during the five-year period from 2019 to 2023," according to the report.
With her father now in his 80s, Berdahl told Tremonti that she would “never want to see him pass away, at the end of his life, knowing” that the company had failed.
She wants the expansion to be built in the hopes it will jumpstart the oil industry, and reinvigorate her family business.
“If it doesn't get better, we're gonna probably have to start selling some of the buildings and ... actually downsize,” she said.
“But we're determined to keep this name as long as possible. It’s a huge pressure.”
Conservationist and activist
Owns guest ranch that is trying to be more energy efficient
Environmentalists in Alberta risk the ire of the entire province if they raise their views, according to Rocky Notnes, who runs Entrance Ranch, offering guest accommodation near Hinton, Alta.
“Someone has to speak for the land, and then they get brutalized and chastised for it,” said Notnes, who is also a member of the Alberta Wilderness Association and the West Athabasca Watershed Bioregional Society.
But Notnes’s friend and fellow environmentalist, Paul Belanger, said that not being attacked can actually be worse.
“We try to get this message out, but the famous story here is environmentalists in Alberta don't die due to attacks, they die from being ignored to death,” he told Tremonti.
“In northern Alberta, we have no voice.”
In April, a Vote Compass survey for CBC News found that 62 per cent of Albertans strongly disagreed with the statement that no new pipelines should be built in the province. A further 17 per cent somewhat disagreed. Only eight per cent of the 86,513 Albertans surveyed strongly agreed that the province should not build any more pipelines.
We cannot handle any more growth — we're going to see catastrophes.
- Paul Belanger
Belanger, co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca — an activist group that works to protect the watershed — says he once supported the expansion as less environmentally detrimental than other proposals, but changed his mind as warnings about climate change grew more dire.
Belanger is worried that building the pipeline would increase what he calls the oil industry’s already “huge impacts on our environment, on our wildlife.”
“We cannot handle any more growth — we're going to see catastrophes,” he said.
In its initial assessment in 2016, the National Energy Board found that the likelihood of a major oil spill was very low, but acknowledged that if it did happen, the impact would be significant.
The NEB said that risk could be justified in light of the economic benefits, and recommended construction if 157 conditions were met, including 49 environmental requirements.
Belanger doesn’t believe those “economic benefits” will be worth it in the long run.
Even if the transition away from fossil fuels is “a painful adjustment,” society has to adapt as it has in the past, he said.
Notnes said the oil business has created a culture of “big, fancy $70,000 trucks,” adding that he doesn’t “feel sorry for those people if they have to lower their lifestyles.”
“But I do feel sorry for a lot of people, small family businesses,” he said.
In April’s Vote Compass survey, almost 70 per cent of Albertans said the economy is too dependent on oil and gas.
Notnes agreed there is a need to diversify, but acknowledged it’s easier said than done.
“The alternatives aren't quite here yet, so we have to be patient,” he said.
“We have to be kind, because everybody depends on it, including myself.”
Ryan Bernicky has been building pipelines for 11 years, a job that takes him all over the country, sometimes for months at a time.
“Last year I was working … 17 days on and 4 days off, but two paid travel days. So I was home once a month, for a week,” he told Tremonti.
“Most big projects ... you're gone from the start of the job to the end of the job.”
That work takes him away from his wife and three young children in Valemount, B.C.
“The wife takes care of the kids and it's tough.”
Somebody is going to be providing the oil, and it might as well be us.
- Ryan Bernicky
He says Trans Mountain construction would give him the opportunity to work closer to home, and spend more time with his family.
“I'd be home every night doing what I normally do, so it’d be something hasn't happened in quite a while.”
Bernicky thinks that people opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline need to acknowledge that whether it’s built or not, the world will still use oil.
“People have got to realize if you’re not getting it from countries like Canada, which has human rights and labour rights and good environmental practices, you're going to be getting it from other countries that don't have that stuff,” he said.
“Somebody is going to be providing the oil, and it might as well be us.”
Chair of Chilliwack School Board
Dan Coulter is the chair of a B.C. school board that has twice been offered money to agree to run the pipeline under its schoolyards — and has twice refused.
“I personally believe that the money is so that you sign on, and then they can use the fact that you've signed on and taken the money … [as] tacit agreement or tacit endorsement of the project,” said Coulter, chair of the Chilliwack School Board, which oversees more than 30 schools in the district.
The money was offered to secure permission to widen the right of way under Vedder Middle School and Watson Elementary — but the school would not have received it unless the pipeline was built. If the pipeline is built, Trans Mountain will have to give the school some money, but it may not compare to the sum refused.
They're kind of using us as an endorsement or propaganda. That's why they wanted to give us this money — 100 per cent.
- Dan Coulter
In 2015, the school board turned down an offer of $30,910 from Kinder Morgan, which owned the pipeline before the federal government announced plans to buy it in May 2018. The company added a $7,700 bonus if it signed right away.
“We could use the money, we could always use the money, but ... in the scheme of the school district, it’s not a lot of money,” Coulter said, who also works as a fundraiser for the provincial NDP.
In February, that offer was increased to $136,350 with a bonus of $34,000 if it signed. Again, the board again did not take it.
“They're kind of using us as an endorsement or propaganda. That's why they wanted to give us this money — 100 per cent,” Coulter said.
The debate over the pipeline has dragged on for so long that people have fallen into simplified “for-or-against” positions, said Warren Mirko, who lives in Burnaby, B.C.
“What's challenging is avoiding the ‘analysis paralysis’ that comes from so much study and research and being bombarded from the media,” said Mirko, a communications consultant.
“Over such a long period of time, we're exposed to a lot more sound bites and the dilution of information — especially science — and that leads to a misunderstanding of how complex this issue is,” he told Tremonti.
“There's a lot of content out there and it's hard to add anything new to this discussion, except fatigue or disappointment about how long it's taken to get to a resolution.”
There's a lot more important things to worry about, from the cost of living to transport issues, and housing costs.
- Warren Mirko
That fatigue also creates a desire to just move on when the issue comes up in conversation, added Mirko, who was a campaign manager for the Liberals in the last federal election.
“That doesn't encourage discourse — that's just to resolve the issue and get back to your coffee, or your dinner, or your social outing.”
The pipeline would terminate in Burnaby, where Mirko lives with his wife and young son. He wants the pipeline to be built as part of development in the region.
The city was the site of Camp Cloud, an encampment for protesters opposed to the pipeline. Erected in November 2017, police dismantled the camp last August, removing almost a dozen people, and making five arrests.
Mirko said protests like the camp give the impression that Burnaby is opposed to the pipeline, but he believes many people just want the issue to be resolved.
“There's a lot more important things to worry about, from the cost of living to transport issues, and housing costs.”
Fish guardian at mouth of Capilano River
Walter Nahanee has spent almost six decades swimming and fishing at the mouth of the Capilano River in B.C.
Now, the 63-year-old brings his three grandchildren to play at the water’s edge, while he watches the tankers, taking oil to international markets, moving through the bay.
“I just hope they don't crash. I hope nothing happens. That's what I hope,” he told Tremonti.
Nahanee is a member of the Squamish Nation. He works as a fish guardian at the mouth of the river, making sure Indigenous and non-Native fishing parties respect seasonal limits and rules to protect fish stocks.
The NEB was ordered in August 2018 to review the potential impact of increased oil tanker traffic on the endangered killer whale population on the B.C. coast.
Everybody says everything's safe, but nothing's guaranteed.
- Walter Nahanee
Delivering the report in February, the NEB's chief environment officer Robert Steedman said that the project would cause "significant adverse environmental effects" on the whales. He added that while a worst-case spill from the pipeline or an oil tanker is not likely, "the effects would be significant.”
However, the NEB recommended that the government pursue the project in light of the economic benefits. It made 16 new recommendations, including that tankers in the Salish Sea are escorted by tug boats, as well as increasing marine spill response and reducing emissions from marine vessels.
Despite assurances about safety standards, Nahanee told Tremonti that “it'd be hard to convince me.”
“Everybody says everything's safe, but nothing's guaranteed.”
A spill could have a long-term impact, he said.
“If one of [the tankers] break open ... we won't be able to swim here for how many years?” he asked.
“All those people that go fishing down at the end down here won't be able to, kids that go swimming, people won't be able let their dogs come down at the other end.”
Listen to the documentary:
Photos: Anna Maria Tremonti, Elizabeth Hoath | Radio documentary: Anna Maria Tremonti, Elizabeth Hoath | Copy editor|Senior digital producer: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Digital producers: Ruby Buiza, Padraig Moran | Web development: Rebecca Viegas | Art director & animator: Ben Shannon
On June 17, CBC News begins In Our Backyard, a comprehensive project showing how climate change is affecting our lives right now. Find it online, on CBC-TV and CBC Radio.