As the federally-owned Trans Mountain Pipeline slowly returns to service after the longest outage in its 68-year history, a senior pipeline executive is pointing to the vulnerability of British Columbia’s energy supplies, while critics call for a faster shift off fossil fuels.
But while Trans Mountain Corporation Chief Operating Officer Michael Davies sees an intensely contentious pipeline expansion project as the ticket to securing gasoline supplies on B.C.’s Lower Mainland, observers say the new infrastructure he wants so badly to complete was only meant to serve export markets, not Canadian consumers.
The discussion was triggered by the unprecedented atmospheric rivers that brought a torrent of flooding to B.C. last month. Operators shut down Trans Mountain November 14, leading to gasoline rationing in the southern part of the province that only ended earlier this week. In all, the floods exposed about 14 sections of the pipeline along a 30-kilometre stretch south of Merritt, B.C., CBC says, and Davies acknowledged “that the unprecedented surge of the Coldwater River was a challenge that may have been driven in part by wildfire damage earlier this year.”
Repair work on the pipeline will cost “many tens of millions of dollars,” Davies told The Canadian Press. In a December 6 media release, the company said the line’s capacity would “return to normal levels within a week.” But just a few days later, Davies said TMX won’t be back to full capacity until late January at the earliest.
“The pipe is still running at a lower pressure. We’re armouring riverbanks and re-bedding pipe where it was scoured out,” he told CP. “We may still have some further pipe repairs to do, more permanent repairs.”
To get that work done, Trans Mountain had to divert some contractors from its C$12.6-billion expansion project to focus on the existing line. “The biggest challenge was access,” Davies said. “There was only one location where we actually had repairs that we had to do physically to the pipe.”
In the wake of the shutdown, the TMX executive said completion of the export pipeline would give B.C. another option for securing its gasoline supplies. “We all aspire to change the energy mix,” he said, “but fossil fuels for motor fuel are still something we need every day.”
But where Davies cast the pipeline’s response to the flooding as a testament to its resilience, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer Eugene Kung saw an environmental calamity narrowly averted.
“I feel like it is absolutely a miracle that there wasn’t more extensive damage. It could have been even worse,” he told CBC. “It doesn’t take much imagination to envision what could have happened if a large tree or rock had come tumbling down.”
And “with triple the capacity and volume of oil enabled by the expansion, the risk and consequences of a spill also increase,” he added last week, in a blog post that included photos and video of the flooding and the subsequent pipeline repair.
Kung said the flooding, described by University of Calgary economist Blake Shaffer as “easily the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history,” showed that it’s time to rethink the Trans Mountain expansion project. The sequence of floods, wildfires, heat domes, and severe storms B.C. has endured over the last few months “are the impacts of climate change being felt while Canada is warming at twice the global average,” he wrote.
“At a time when the human and financial costs of climate change are in such stark relief, it is hard to believe that our federal government is still talking about expanding oil pipeline infrastructure,” he added. “But if the climate impacts of enabling oilsands expansion aren’t enough, skyrocketing costs, exacerbated by the floods and wildfires themselves, should cause them to pause.”
West Coast Environmental Law had been reporting a “myriad of delays and challenges” facing the pipeline before last month’s atmospheric rivers. Now, Kung wrote, “the damage caused by the floods and landslides—which have washed away an unknown amount of the progress in two large segments of the pipeline route—will likely add tens of millions if not billions of dollars to the cost, and cause delays of one year or more,” sufficient to “force a reconsideration of the economic benefits of the pipeline itself.”
Instead of doubling down on the pipeline project, Kung said, “the floods should be a catalyst to accelerate the shift away from a dependence on fossil fuels towards renewable resources with distributed generation, requiring less linear infrastructure that makes us all more vulnerable to catastrophes. This is especially true in light of the inevitable delays and cost increases to the expansion project caused by the floods.”
Read the rest of Eugene Kung’s analysis here.