Buying the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Seems Like a Bad Idea

With a $4.5-billion purchase, Justin Trudeau is an oil man now.
May 29, 2018, 6:52pm
Photo via Cole Burston/Canadian Press

Congratulations, Canada! You are soon to be the proud new owner of the Trans-Mountain pipeline and expansion. The market has failed us in our hour of need, so it’s the leaden weight of the Crown to our rescue.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but this was the inevitable ending of Justin Trudeau’s first promise to backstop Kinder Morgan when they threatened to walk in April. The Liberals were always unequivocal that no price was too high for this project, and they telegraphed increasingly desperate offers as the company’s May 31 deadline approached.


Remember two weeks ago when the feds told Kinder Morgan (or anyone! please!) that we would guarantee and reimburse all construction costs incurred due to British Columbia’s political interference? Between offering oil companies unlimited moral hazard to build pipes in the mountains or doing it ourselves, nationalization is the least ridiculous option.

Incredibly, it does not seem like the Liberals—whose signature infrastructure policies so far have included “subsidize billionaires” and “privatize airports”—have thought their new pipeline drive through. Yes, sure, building TMX is in the so-called National Interest, and direct control over the project allows Canada to advance its economic interests without relying on unscrupulous corporate middlemen motivated only by profit. They may also discover that public ownership and control over the production and distribution of utilities and resources can help meet any number of other social and economic policy goals.

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But the Liberal plan as it currently stands is totally backward. The federal government is taking on the maintenance and construction of a nationally-vital project in order to eventually turn all of this infrastructure back over to a private buyer once it is completely up and running. (Nevermind that the existence of a future Interested Pipeline Stewardship Company is entirely hypothetical.) This is literally socializing the risk and then privatizing the profits, and it is the Liberal government’s stated “best case scenario.” The worst case is that we can never sell this pipeline, and we are responsible for the risks of construction and maintenance in perpetuity.

What kind of risks are we talking about? Assuming no other companies step in to buy Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain assets by the end of the summer, the Canadian government is about to buy everything for $4.5 billion dollars. This only covers their already-existing pipeline. The construction cost for the expansion is estimated to be around $7.4 billion, and that is assuming there are no further delays or cost overruns. They’ll also assume responsibility for the many outstanding court challenges against the TMX, which may still kill the project regardless of federal ownership. Our direct responsibilities would presumably also include any environmental damages, such as the Trans-Mountain spill in BC last weekend.

No one knows what this will cost when it’s all said and done. But it’s unlikely we’re going to get a great return on investment, even in the most optimistic oil-boom-spinoff scenarios.


Trudeau & Co. will now also be fully responsible for defending this pipeline against opposition. This includes the strong plurality of Canadians who do not see the value and necessity of throwing billions of dollars after a bitumen pipeline at a historical moment when most jurisdictions outside English-speaking North America are beginning to seriously scale back on fossil fuels. But it also includes a number of First Nations groups either outright opposed to TMX, or who are arguing in court that they were never properly consulted.

Among them is the Secwepemc First Nation, the largest Indigenous nation in British Columbia, who never signed a territorial treaty with the Crown. Roughly 518 km of the pipeline expansion runs through Secwepemc land. Beside some agreements between Kinder Morgan and some smaller band councils representing a fraction of the overall territory, the Secwepemc community has refused to accede to the pipeline and promised forceful resistance.

By taking direct control of TMX, the federal government has transformed what was a “merely” economic conflict between some First Nations and a corporate actor (supported by auxiliary state security forces) into an explicitly political and colonial confrontation between the Canadian state and its conquered subjects on the slopes of the BC Rockies. For good and for ill, Justin Trudeau has finally put his money where his mouth is. But it’s not the cause of Nation-to-Nation reconciliation.

Of course, these are petty concerns for a country on the cusp of seizing its economic destiny. Alberta bitumen must reach British Columbia’s coastal markets come Hell and/or high water. Trudeau and Alberta premier Rachel Notley have made a blood pact to ride or die together against the Canadian left, forcing the NDP parties across the country into a civil war over nationalizing public infrastructure. The Conservatives get to say “it never should have come to this” if this gamble works, and “Justin Trudeau destroyed Canada’s oil sector by stupidly nationalizing its infrastructure, like father like son, the prophecy is fulfilled!”

It should be safe to mark nationalizing the Trans Mountain Pipeline as the dramatic crescendo of Trudeau’s career as prime minister. But it’s hard to hear whether he’s being cheered or jeered, because those Kinder Morgan executives are laughing all the way the bank.

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