It’s time to reconsider the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (TMX). TMX is bad for Canada for many reasons, and the federal NDP has a potential role in that reconsideration.
The environmental problems of TMX are clear. The associated expansion of the existing petroleum tank farm in Burnaby will increase the danger of a disastrous toxic fire well beyond the local fire department's capacity to contain. If completed, TMX would increase the volume of tanker traffic through Vancouver harbour and of tar sands toxins down the pipe, increasing the odds of species-threatening spills. For example, TMX spills and tanker traffic could drive local Southern Resident orca populations to extinction.
If the pipeline succeeds economically, it would export enough diluted bitumen to blast Canada well past its Paris emission reduction targets. By 2050, absent serious reforms, the Canadian oil and gas sector alone will be producing emissions 81 per cent higher than the entire national emission total target for that year.
That's a lot of risk for a project with politically touted but uncertain economic benefits. New work by energy analyst J. David Hughes indicates that TMX is a bad deal that leaves Canadian taxpayers on the hook to subsidize the arguably unneeded pipeline.
In a recent study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Hughes says:
"The discount from selling Canadian heavy oil to Asia, coupled with higher transportation costs, will lead to a reduction in netbacks (revenue after costs) for Canadian producers, compared to the US, of US$4 to US$6 per barrel or more. Therefore, the government's claim that TMX must be built in order to provide increased revenue to Canadian oil producers and $500 million per year to reduce emissions must be viewed with extreme skepticism."
Economist Robyn Allan estimates that TMX will be subsidized by over $8 billion. She says:
"There never was a reliable business case for TMX. Oil market developments in recent years have made the new pipeline even more commercially challenged, which is why Ottawa agreed to subsidize toll rates. Trans Mountain's expansion will be underutilized with taxpayers picking up the cost."
Meanwhile, a new report from the federal government's own Canadian Energy Regulator suggests that if Canada lives up to its emission reduction commitments, TMX is unnecessary. Three Canadian scholars, Thomas Gunton, Carolyn Fischer and David Wheeler, recently argued that TMX would "only create stranded assets that threaten global financial stability."
Not all experts agree with these conclusions, but together they provide substantive reasons for reconsideration.
Besides its environmental, public health and economic risks, TMX jeopardizes Canadian reconciliation with Indigenous nations. Given few alternatives to escape poverty, it's not surprising that some 59 Indigenous groups along the TMX route have signed "community benefits" agreements, according to the company. But according to the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the project would invade the mostly unceded territories of over 140 Indigenous nations, involved in 400 specific claims. Some of them, such as the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, have led determined opposition.
TMX is thus an issue for all Canadians. If we fail to meet our promised emissions cuts, we contribute to climate chaos that hurts our country and the world. The subsidy to the fossil fuel industry represented by this infrastructural white elephant will come out of taxpayer pockets. And we will all have to deal with the dire consequences if vain hopes of petro-profits trump reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The federal NDP could help end this madness. The party's parliamentary caucus should present a motion at an upcoming opposition day that calls on the government to cease TMX construction and end other corporate welfare (estimated at $3.3 billion per year) to fossil fuel industries. Instead, divert the money saved to a just post-COVID transition to reverse our rush towards climate chaos, and to retrain and involve workers and their unions in shaping a greener economy, including more job-intensive renewable energy.
Such a motion would not trigger an unwanted election; it's not a confidence vote. The NDP has much to gain by using its pivotal position in the current minority Parliament, to galvanize an overdue public reconsideration of pipelines that would lock us further into dependence on low-employment, heavily subsidized, high-carbon exports to volatile markets.
As the party's website says: "It's time to fight climate change like we actually want to win." And it's never too late to stop throwing taxpayers' money at a pointless project.
Svend Robinson is a former NDP MP for Burnaby-Douglas. Tom Sandborn and Robert Hackett are lifelong NDP voters and authors based in British Columbia. This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
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