Ottawa has OKed the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, bogged down by delays due to concerns over oil spills in coastal waters and opposition from indigenous people living in its path.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who's been trying to carve out an image of himself as a champion of environmental protection, reasoned that the pipeline would lessen the US' leverage over Canada.
"As we've seen over the past few years, anything can happen with our neighbors to the south. Right now, we're prisoners to the American market," Trudeau said as his government gave a go-ahead to the controversial expansion of the pipeline set to triple its capacity to almost 1 million barrels per day.
Operational since 1953, the pipeline carries crude from Alberta to the west coast of British Colombia. As the Canada's oil production has increased, the pipeline's capacity has become overtaxed, since it remains the only one linking the two areas. Some 99 percent of Canada's oil exports go to its southern neighbor, making it dependent on the US.With the expansion of the pipeline and thus the connection to oil tanker traffic, Ottawa hopes to interest potential buyers in Asia. While the project is set to bring in some C$500 million ($373 million) in federal tax revenue each year, approval of the pipeline stalled due to fierce opposition from the indigenous population and environmental groups in British Colombia voicing concerns that potential oil spills, release of chemicals and explosions could bring irreversible damage to indigenous land and water resources.
With uncertainty hovering over the future of the project, its original owner, Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd, sold the pipeline to the Canadian government for C$4.5 billion ($3.4 billion) last year. Days later, the court quashed the federal government's previous approval of the project, citing its failure to consider the environmental effect of tanker traffic and adverse implications for the First Nations.
Effectively starting all over, the government carried out additional rounds of consultations with indigenous communities and pledged to meet all 156 conditions put forward by the National Energy Board (NEB) in its review of the project. The authorities promised to take a number of measures aimed at mitigating the impact of the pipeline on killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that inhabit the coastal waters, as well as step up emergency preparedness and response.
All the tax profits from the project will go towards clean energy ventures, Trudeau said. If the government succeeds in selling the pipeline, the funds will be earmarked for projects aimed at expediting Canada's transition to clean energy.
The decision has drawn backlash from environmental advocates and conservative opposition. Patrick McCully, energy program director at the Rainforest Action Network, called out the Trudeau cabinet's hypocrisy in giving a nod to the project a day after the House of Commons declared a national climate emergency.
"This is like declaring war on cancer and then announcing a campaign to promote smoking," he said.
The national climate emergency motion, although non-binding, was championed by Trudeau's Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
While some indigenous people have showed interest in buying into the project, others are crying foul over the government's decision to go ahead. Following Trudeau's announcement, many British Columbia indigenous groups lambasted the move.
"Our lands are burning and flooding. Our fish are dying and our people are suffering. Now is not the time to recklessly pursue environmentally devastating projects while our territories suffer," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said in a statement. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation announced it would be appealing the decision, while The Union of B.C. Indian Chief called it an "irresponsible approach to combatting climate change and recognizing the human rights of Indigenous Peoples."
Despite having received the government's seal of approval, the project is far from being finalized and will need to jump through a number of regulatory hoops before construction kicks off, presumably later this year. It can also be challenged again in court by indigenous people not content with the final settlement or environment advocates.