Kinder Morgan takes its case for a pipeline to the people

Five years ago, when Greg Toth was working on a Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project along the Alberta-B.C. border, the terms public engagement and consultation meant talking to a handful of landowners, holding open houses in pipeline-friendly communities and meeting with people who were mostly pleased over the employment that came along with the project.

It was a relatively small project to twin the pipeline between Hinton, AB., through Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park to Valemount, just inside the B.C. border. A precursor to the company’s ambitious plan to twin the entire length of the Edmonton-to-Burnaby line, it created a loop that would increase overall pipeline capacity.

Pipelines, Toth said, had always been “out of sight, out of mind.”

“It’s the safest method of transporting large volumes of energy across the continent.”

The company even won an environmental award for the loop project.

How things have changed.

Toth is now manager of Trans Mountain owner Kinder Morgan’s $4.1-billion project to twin of the entire length of the 1,150-km pipeline.

In the five years since the project to Valemount, pipelines and the products they carry have taken on a new meaning.

“I’ve been in the industry for 25 years now and it’s an unprecedented time for pipelines. Unprecedented from the standpoint of public interest,” he said at a November open house Trans Mountain held in Vancouver to promote a pipeline project that is generating opposition from residents, broad-based environmental organizations, grassroots groups, First Nations and city councils.

There are 2,200 landowners along the right-of-way. Issues include the route through urban areas that did not exist when the original pipeline was installed 59 years ago, pipeline and marine safety, and concern over the product the pipeline would carry: Alberta oilsands diluted bitumen.

“This is a big project, by anyone’s standard,” Toth said.

Kinder Morgan wants to increase the line’s capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 750,000.

At a series of open houses that were held almost on a nightly basis in communities from Hope to Vancouver Island, Trans Mountain has been seeking to gain broader acceptance and support for its proposal in a time when the public attention has been coloured by Kalamazoo, Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, concerns over diluted bitumen and global warming.

“Some of the opposition is driven by broader issues that are beyond the pipeline’s control,” Toth said. “I know from a broader perspective, there is a need for the business community and other people to support the project.”

The opposition attracts more attention to the project, but he said Trans Mountain sees “a level of support out there that doesn’t necessarily get reported.”

Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the Business Council of B.C., said the council has taken no position on the Kinder Morgan proposal, but added: “If you polled our members who are doing business here in B.C. or in the Lower Mainland, I suspect a large majority of them would be favourably disposed to that project.”

At the open houses, which generally attracted fewer than 100 people a session, Toth and his staff were selling the merits of their particular project and dispelling some of the myths, such as concerns that the exact route is being kept secret. In a separate interview, Toth said the pipeline route has yet to be set through the Lower Fraser Valley, not out of secrecy but because of the issue of urban buildup. Kinder Morgan is attempting to have portions rerouted along other existing rights-of-way, such as hydro lines, to avoid built-up areas.

However, the company is also remaining silent on issues that are of broad public concern regarding tankers, said Will Horter, executive director of The Dogwood Society, which is opposed to marine tanker traffic.

Kinder Morgan’s proposal is to bring mid-sized Aframax tankers to its Westridge Terminal. Due to the depth of the Second Narrows, they can only be loaded to 85 to 90 per cent of their capacity, resulting in less than optimal returns on oil shipments. Even though the tankers will not be full, a potential 15 per cent loss on volumes shipped, Kinder Morgan has no plans to apply for dredging to permit fully-loaded tankers, or larger tankers, to exit through the Narrows. It’s not before the National Energy Board and will not be part of any review, preventing the issue from being raised at the hearings.

Toth said at a Vancouver open house, that over time, if Port Metro Vancouver decided to dredge the channel deeper, Kinder Morgan would be supportive of that.

Horter said with no process to talk about dredging to permit larger tankers into the port, the issue is entirely in the hands of Port Metro Vancouver. And Horter is not satisfied that the port will hold open public hearings, particularly as it is not willing to do so over another contentious issue: the expansion of coal exports through the port.

“There is no accountability on the part of the port,” he said. “Yet we are looking at a massive expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in a city that views itself as green. That’s a contradiction that cannot survive.”

Opposition is also growing among grassroots groups with names like BROKE (Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion), Tanker Free BC, and PIPE UP, a Fraser Valley group opposed to the use of Alberta bitumen passing underneath their communities and farmland.

The grassroots groups are holding their own town hall meetings and they frequently draw more people than did Kinder Morgan’s open houses.

“We want to inform ourselves and our communities on the issue of tarsands bitumen,” said Michael Hale, of PIPE UP. “We have members in each group and we share as much as we can.”

Notably absent at the open house meetings were representatives of the First Nation that has the most to lose should there be a spill in Burrard Inlet – the Tsleil Waututh First Nation, whose community is directly across the inlet from Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Terminal. The pipeline expansion is all about linking the Alberta oilsands with Asian markets through the Westridge Terminal.

The Tsleil Waututh urged Lower Mainland residents to attend the sessions to gain more understanding of the proposal. The Tsleil Waututh themselves stayed away over concern that if they attended, Kinder Morgan could then state that it has engaged in consultations with the First Nation when it files its application to build the pipeline with the National Energy Board. That is not expected until the fall of 2013.

The Tsleil Waututh council has ended all contact with Kinder Morgan and asked federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver to initiate government-to-government consultation over the expansion project.

“That pipeline terminates in the heart of our territory,” said Tsleil Waututh councillor Carleen Thomas. “We understand it’s not if a spill happens, it’s when. We are concerned obviously about the damage to our environment and natural resources. We are concerned about health risks and the response to clean up of any kind of spill any where along the pipeline or in the inlet itself.”

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