Wednesday, September 26, 2018
ZOMBIE PIPELINE: “This pipeline is dead,” environmental groups cheered when Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal rejected approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. In a unanimous decision by a panel of three judges in August, the court found the National Energy Board’s review of the expansion project was so flawed that the federal government could not rely on it as a basis for its decision to approve the expansion, and that the federal government failed in its duty to engage in meaningful consultations with First Nations before giving the project the greenlight. But the cries of victory were optimistic and premature, as no project backed by the powerful fossil fuels industry is ever truly dead—as long as they have government interests behind them. And perhaps that’s even more intensely true of a “twinning” project like Trans Mountain, plotted along routes already permitted and constructed, in a $9.3 billion addition that will triple pipeline capacity and increase tanker traffic in Puget Sound sevenfold.
The Canadian government laid a heavy thumb on the scales in favor of the project last spring when it announced plans to purchase the tar sands pipeline and expansion project after Kinder Morgan Canada shareholders balked at moving ahead with construction, effectively nationalizing the effort. The appeals court panel went so far as to actually lay out steps the Canadian government would have to perform, the detailed roadmap that might warrant additional review and reversal of their decision.
The Canadian government began those steps in earnest in an announcement last week the National Energy Board will reconsider the Trans Mountain expansion project to take into account marine traffic and its effect on orcas in the Salish Sea. The government has given the energy board 22 weeks to conduct the review. The timetable outraged British Columbia First Nations and environmental groups who believe 22 weeks is an insufficient amount of time to gather evidence and data for anything but a cursory and sham review.
Expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline raises the stakes south of the border, too, representing a potential doubling of the Puget Sound Pipeline, a 64-mile branch of the pipeline that operates in Washington that carried 2.6 billion gallons of tar sands crude oil to refineries in Ferndale and Anacortes last year.
In operation since 1954, the Puget Sound Pipeline crosses the Nooksack River, Sumas River, Samish River, Whatcom Creek, and the Swinomish Channel and carries about 30 percent of all crude oil shipped into Washington. The pipeline connects the four refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties to the larger Trans Mountain Pipeline system that connects British Columbia and Washington state with the tar sands in northern Alberta.
Washington gave Trans Mountain another bite at the apple, too, directing the operators to correct deficiencies in the oil spill contingency plan for its operations in Whatcom and Skagit counties. The company submitted a plan required by the state Dept. of Ecology for review and approval. Ecology requires oil-handling operations in Washington—such as facilities, pipelines, large commercial vessels and railroads—to have oil spill contingency plans that detail how they would respond to oil spills.
The Puget Sound Pipeline plan received more than 14,000 public comments.
“All opposed the plan’s ability to address a response to heavy oils that are difficult to clean up once spilled,” Ecology summarized. “All opposed the lack of details in the plan on species that are endangered and at risk from potential spills, such as the declining populations of Southern Resident killer whales.”
The agency gave the operators 60 days to provide more details about how operators would respond to a spill of heavy oils that may sink to the seafloor, and the initial steps they would take after a spill is discovered.
“We expect Canada to adhere to the high standards Washington has worked so hard to achieve that protect our environment, economy and the health of our communities,” said Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program.
“The current emergency response plan assumes that all spilled oil will float on water. The Trans Mountain (Puget Sound) Pipeline now carries heavy oil from tar sands that will sink below the water surface, so it can’t be contained by the procedures in this plan,” Eddy Ury, the Clean Energy Program Manager at RE Sources, noted in comments to Ecology. “The only way to protect from the devastation of an oil spill is to prevent one, but at the very least our state regulators must require a better plan to prepare for the risks to our rivers and fish that we’re facing from this tar sands pipeline in northwest Washington.”
The resurrection of this zombie pipeline expansion comes as bitter irony at a moment when the West Coast is accelerating a clean-energy transition. In 2017, Washington published the first economic analysis of this transition. The results showed that a transition to clean energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels is both possible and affordable, but requires ambitious action.
On the ballot this November voters will consider Initiative 1631, which invests in clean energy and healthy communities and puts a $15/ton of carbon fee on the largest polluters.
What a tragedy for our state that some portion of this effort may have to be spent preparing for an enlarged catastrophic spill from one of the dirtiest sources of oil in the West, rather than on infrastructure to transition to a different future. And doubly a tragedy that Canada—ordinarily an inspiring and able partner in these efforts—has nationalized forces to push this through.
Zombies: They eat your brains.