Canada’s energy regulator endorses contentious pipeline

TORONTO (AP) – Canada’s energy regulator endorsed a contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on Friday that would almost triple the flow of oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast.

The National Energy Board said the expansion is in the country’s national interest, but set out 16 new conditions after a court found it had not properly determined how killer whales would be affected by additional tanker traffic. The court also said there had been insufficient consultation with indigenous communities.

As oil flow increases from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, tanker traffic will balloon from about 60 vessels to more than 400 vessels annually.

But the regulator said on Friday that the consequences generated by the traffic, such as injured whales and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, can be justified.

“The considerable benefits of the project 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 said.

Oil and gas supporters picket outside the National Energy Board, during the release of the board’s reconsideration report on marine shipping related to the Trans Mountain expansion project, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. – AP

The expansion still faces stiff environmental and aboriginal opposition, although the Cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely expected to approve the expansion proposal for a second time.

The government bought the pipeline from Kinder Morgan last summer in a move widely seen as a bid to eliminate difficulties that would impede the expansion from taking place.

The pipeline would allow Canada to diversify oil markets and vastly increase exports to Asia, where it could command a higher price for oil. Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves, but 99 per cent of its exports now go to refiners in the United States (US), where limits on pipeline and refinery capacity mean Canadian oil sells at a discount.

Analysts have said China is eager to get access to Canada’s oil, but has largely given up hope that a pipeline to the Pacific Coast will be built.

The court’s ruling in 2018, which forced the National Energy Board to reconsider the issue, initially handed a victory to indigenous leaders and environmentalists who have pledged to do whatever is necessary to thwart the pipeline, including chaining themselves to construction equipment.

Many indigenous people see the 620 miles of new pipeline as a threat to their lands, echoing concerns raised by Native Americans about the Keystone XL project in the US.

Some say it also raises broader environmental concerns by enabling increased development of the carbon-heavy oil sands. Further legal action could be taken.

The board said on Friday it will impose a total of 156 conditions on the project if it is approved, including measures to offset increased underwater noise and improve spill response actions.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called the endorsement a good step forward.

But Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band in British Columbia, said the decision is not a surprise considering the government owns the pipeline.