Ben Nelms / Reuters

Canadian protesters defy authorities over Trans Mountain pipeline

Proposed expansion would triple tar sands capacity and endanger coastal waters in British Columbia, local groups say

A proposed pipeline expansion that would transport tar sands oil through a park in British Columbia has unified Canadians from all walks of life in their opposition to the project — which they said does not respect public opinion and could endanger both land and sea.

“I’ve never seen in my 30 years of being environmentally active an issue that so galvanizes so many people,” said John Bennet, executive director of Sierra Club Canada. “It’s absolutely clear that the public, not just a handful of crazies willing to get arrested, don’t want it.”

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposed by Houston-based oil giant Kinder Morgan would see the line’s capacity nearly tripled to 890,000 barrels per day, bringing tar sands oil from Alberta to the British Columbia coast. It would also increase tanker traffic carrying the oil through the pristine waters local residents and First Nations groups depend on for their way of life.

View from Burnaby Mountain, 10 miles east of Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 19, 2010.
Diane Worth / Flikr

According to a local poll, 70 percent of residents oppose the expansion. And hundreds of protesters have flocked to Burnaby Mountain — located about 10 miles east of Vancouver — where test drilling has already begun to determine whether the planned route through the mountain and over a conservation site and popular park would be feasible, locals said.

Kinder Morgan says it is committed to minimizing any impact the pipeline might have and that the conduit would be out of sight in the conservation area.

"Ultimately, if the project is approved, there will be no surface disturbance on Burnaby Mountain because the tunnel, at its deepest point, will be approximately 160 meters [525 feet] below surface," the company said in a statement.

Nonetheless, the expansion has drawn diverse protesters from across the region who are fighting the project for various reasons.

On Sunday, police detained two 11-year-old girls and their mothers after they crossed the police line at the project site. Since police moved in to enforce last Thursday's injunction by the B.C. Supreme Court that compelled protesters to leave the area, at least 50 people have been arrested for ignoring the order, protesters said. Those included local residents, First Nation members, university professors and environmental activists — including the grandson of renowned environmentalist David Suzuki, protesters said.

“No one is organizing these protests. It's just individuals who decided they want to have a say and just going up and crossing that line the [police] drew in the sand and saying, ‘arrest me, I’m willing to stand up for my democracy,’” said Art Sterrit, executive director of Coastal First Nations — an alliance of First Nations bands.

Sterrit said while the main issue bringing locals out to protest is the expansion of the pipeline in their neighborhood, the whittling down of citizen’s rights in voicing opposition to such projects has also angered many.

In 2012, the federal government rewrote Canada’s environmental assessment laws, according to Bennet of the Sierra Club.

“In the old version, the proponent had to show need and alternatives to show the proposal is the best solution,” said Bennet. “Socioeconomic factors were an important part of the decision-making process, and everyone had the right to participate in the assessment.”

The new rules also enforced a two-year time line on the assessment process, he added, and restricted the number of people who could express their opinion about the project to a limited number who were approved by the National Energy Board (NEB) — the panel responsible for conducting environmental assessments in such projects.

“That’s why you see regular people who might have had interest and spent time developing a presentation for the National Energy Board … realizing their only avenue of expression is to go out and stand there,” Sterrit said. “This really is an attack on democracy in Canada.”

The NEB confirmed that not everyone could take part in the assessment process. The organization conducts hearings to gather the information necessary to make a recommendation to the federal government about whether or not the project should go ahead, but the government makes the final decision, its spokeswoman said.

“Because the National Energy Board is a quasi-judicial tribunal and operates much like a court, we can only consider evidence that is filed by the applicant or any registered interveners,” Sarah Kiley, spokeswoman for NEB, said in an emailed statement.

Sterrit said he worries that the cross-examination portion of the assessment had been stripped, allowing the assertions of industry over whether or not projects pose risks to residents or the environment to stand effectively unchallenged.

“For this hearing, we have decided that we will not require oral cross-examination," Kiley said in an email. "However, all of the 400 interveners have the ability to test Kinder Morgan’s evidence through written information requests. Interveners can also file their own evidence and present oral summary argument to the NEB panel.”

The NEB has been carrying out oral hearings with affected First Nation communities along the planned route for months, Kiley said. In a hearing last week, one of the aboriginal bands voiced its concerns about potential posed by the pipeline.

“The risk is the way of life,” Chief Dominic Frederick of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation said, according to transcripts obtained by Al Jazeera. “If there is a spill in the Upper Fraser [river] here and the head waters of the watershed and within our territory, it will devastate many, many, many millions of fish and many spawning grounds.”

Frederick added that he felt disrespected by Kinder Morgan officials at their last meeting, and asked them to leave, saying they had ignored important fears raised by the band. Kinder Morgan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have a constitutional right to be consulted about any actions the government plans to take on their territory. But aboriginal protesters said their opposition is being ignored — that the hearings are a facade.

The NEB’s handling of the Trans Mountain expansion has also led to infringements on the rights of cities, according to Harsha Walia, a Burnaby resident and legal liaison tracking arrests for protesters. 

“The NEB has never had the authority to override laws, but now the NEB has been empowered to overrule any municipal laws that exist,” Walia said.

The NEB — in a first-of-its-kind action — overruled in September the city of Burnaby’s municipal bylaws that would have prevented such activity on a conservation site. The panel overruled the legislation, saying the drilling was necessary to complete NEB-mandated studies.

For Walia, the issue is local and global. Burnaby residents witnessed an oil spill in 2007, an accident Walia said made her become more aware of the impacts and hazards of spills. More than the local risk, a higher-capacity pipeline means that tar sands production must increase in Alberta, where the oil is extracted. Globally, higher production means that more oil will eventually be burned, contributing to climate change.

For residents of Alberta, where the tar sands oil is extracted, First Nations communities said they have been adversely affected through impacts on the environment they depend on for hunting and fishing, as well as health impacts they blame on the tar sands fields.

“I myself am from an impacted tar sands community in Alberta, so I’m keen to see what happens here, because if the expansion is allowed it will impact my family and my community,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, member of the Lubicon Cree band and climate campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. She has attended the protests in Burnaby Mountain.

The tar sands fields of Alberta are the size of Florida, Laboucan-Massimo said, and consist of both surface and underground extraction. In her community, the mining is underground, with toxic byproducts from the extraction process being sequestered underground into the watershed.

“It’s very concerning, we don’t know the long-term impacts,” she said.

She lamented the removal of environmental laws by Canada’s government, but remained hopeful that the constitutional rights of First Nations will eventually stop such destructive projects.

“What we see is that the Harper government is very pro-tar sands. We’ve seen the stripping of environmental laws and regulations across Canada,” said Laboucan-Massimo. “There are lots of people supporting First Nations communities because we have constitutional rights.”

The United Nations affirmed Canadian First Nation rights in a report released earlier this year, saying that any pipeline projects must get aboriginal consent before proceeding. Aboriginal communities and others have brought at least seven legal challenges to similar projects across Canada, Sterrit said. He added that if the project on Burnaby Mountain goes ahead, it would prompt an unprecedented amount of native and non-native opposition.

“These are just dress rehearsals on a small scale of what would happen if the NEB allows the pipeline to be pushed through a park in the middle of Burnaby in metro Vancouver — there’d be thousands of people protesting,” Sterrit said. “The whole issue ends up hinging on the fact that there’s no way to clean up an oil spill in the ocean, and these pipelines are expressly trying to bring tar sands to the coast of B.C. and get it out into the ocean environment. With one accident, you wipe out the ocean economy, ocean culture and all the communities that depend on it.”

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