A highly-anticipated new report from Canada’s National Energy Board says building the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would have “significant” negative effects on killer whales and Indigenous culture related to the whales, but the project should go ahead anyway because it’s in the national interest.
The report says a worst-case scenario marine oil spill is unlikely, but “if it were to occur the environmental effects would be significant.” The report also found that increased tanker traffic related to the project would result in “significant” greenhouse gas emissions.
The NEB penned the new report examining the merits and risks of the project in response to an August 30 Federal Court of Appeal decision that found it made a “critical error” by excluding the impacts of marine tanker traffic in its first report.
The NEB’s positive recommendation brings Trudeau’s government one step closer toward building the pipeline, which his government bought for $4.5 billion, and has been hotly contested by environmental groups and First Nations. The board’s expanded review was one of two steps the court said Canada needed to take in order to have solid legal ground to approve the pipeline. The second step is meaningful consultation with First Nations—something the court said Canada didn’t do properly the first time around.
The project would expand the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, tripling the amount of oil transported from Alberta to Canada’s west coast, where it would be exported via marine tankers.
On Friday, First Nation leaders and environmental critics called the new report a “rubber-stamping” process to approve the pipeline, and threatened continued legal action, protests and arrests.
Chief Judy Wilson of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said the NEB’s recommendation wasn’t a surprise.
“We categorically disagree with the National Energy Board, I want to be very clear about that,” she told reporters during a press conference. “We still say no to the project.”
The NEB, based in Calgary, is the regulator for all pipelines that cross provincial borders, and has the power to recommend pipeline projects to the federal government.
Despite the pipeline’s environmental impacts and risks, the board said it “recommends that the Government of Canada finds that they can be justified in the circumstances, in light of the considerable benefits of the project and measures to minimize the effects.”
Those measures include 156 conditions the company would have to legally comply with, relating to pipeline safety, emergency response and environmental protection, among others. The NEB also made 16 recommendations to the government for how it can offset increased underwater noise and risk of vessels hitting whales—but those recommendations are not legally binding.
The NEB says the project’s benefits to Canada’s national interest include “increased access to diverse markets for Canadian oil; jobs created across Canada; the development of capacity of local and Indigenous individuals, communities and businesses; direct spending on pipeline materials in Canada; and considerable revenues to various levels of government.”
The board did not consider upstream or downstream greenhouse gas emissions in its review. Upstream emissions are those produced before the oil enters the pipeline, and downstream emissions come from refining, distributing and burning the oil after it’s exported from Canada. Environmental group Stand.earth filed a motion on January 21 asking the NEB to consider these emissions, but the board rejected the request, saying the new report would only respond to the issues the Federal Court of Appeal asked it to address.
The NEB has acknowledged that construction of the project would generate one megaton of CO2—about the same as 287,500 cars driving for one year, according to government estimates. But the upstream and downstream GHGs far surpass that number.
A 2016 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada found that the added capacity from the pipeline expansion would contribute 13 to 15 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year. A 2014 study by Simon Fraser University climate economist Mark Jaccard estimated the vast majority of emissions from the pipeline—89 percent—would be downstream. He estimated it would produce 71.1 megatons of CO2 per year from refining, distributing and burning bitumen after it’s exported from Canada.
Asked by VICE why the upstream and downstream emissions weren’t included in either of its recommendation reports, the NEB’s chief environmental officer Robert Steedman said, “Cabinet has a substantial amount of information that relates to greenhouse gas emissions that might be associated with the construction, operation and upstream activities associated with the project.” An NEB spokesperson told VICE upstream and downstream emissions aren’t “directly linked” to the project.
At the press conference Friday, Chief Bob Chamberlin of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs explained the spiritual significance of orcas to First Nations.
“When we consider the spiritual relationship between orcas and First Nations, we have to understand in the broader context of our culture that we have attachment to virtually every species of animal and marine life, and by and large you will find these very iconic figures such as the orca is representative of clans and houses, which are foundational to the governance of our people.”
Chamberlin said true consultation with First Nations wouldn’t have a predetermined outcome.
“The fix is on,” he said of the process to approve the pipeline. “The Prime Minister has already made many, many statements that this will be built. So I want to flag for Canadians the injustice that this represents, the fact that the decision is already made, and they’re gonna go through a court-defined endeavor of consultation which is going to be hollow and meaningless from the very beginning until the end.”
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