Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday approved a major expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline that would result in a surge of new oil tanker traffic through Pacific Northwest waters, telling reporters, “the company plans to have shovels in the ground this construction season.”

This gives new momentum to the project, but opponents will continue attempts to block it through legal challenges and protests.

The project would nearly triple the current capacity of an existing pipeline, helping to open new markets for crude processed from oil sands in Alberta, where the project has fierce political support. Tanker traffic from the Westridge Marine Terminal in British Columbia would increase from about five to 34 tankers a month.

This has been a difficult decision for Trudeau, who has consistently said that economic growth and strong environmental stewardship could go hand-in-hand.

He supported a Monday vote by Canada’s House of Commons to declare a climate emergency. Then on Tuesday, he portrayed the pipeline expansion as consistent with his beliefs, saying it would be possible to keep oil from spilling into the Salish Sea and meet Canada’s commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He also pledged to use any future profits from the government ownership of the pipeline project to fund a Canadian transition to clean energy.

But the opponents of the expansion project, which would run some 700 miles from Alberta to tidewater in Burnaby, B.C., remain unconvinced by Trudeau.

They include Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan, as well as a coalition of environmental groups, Canadian First Nations and U.S. tribes. All are concerned about the risk of a major oil spill to orcas and other marine life as tankers make their way through interior waters of the Salish Sea to exit through the Strait of Juan de Fuca into the Pacific.

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril


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“Hostile Waters” exposes the plight of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales, among our region's most enduring symbols and most endangered animals. The Seattle Times examines the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.

Inslee, who launched his campaign for president based on a platform to combat climate change, called the Canadian government’s decision to approve the Trans Mountain expansion “alarming and disappointing.” In a Tuesday statement he cited the risks of oil spills and the doubling down on “carbon-intensive fuels at a time when world leaders need to double down on clean energy.”

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British Columbia’s Premier Horgan, in a statement, said he would continue to pursue a legal case to see if the province could pass legislation to restrict oil flows from Alberta. But he said the province would issue permits if they are lawful and not obstruct the project, The Vancouver Sun reported.

Meanwhile, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs showed no signs of letting up on its opposition, which is likely to result in protests as construction gets underway.

In a Tuesday statement, the union said indigenous leaders “from across B.C. remain staunchly opposed” and “have vowed that it will never get built.”

The Tuesday decision also was attacked by leaders of the Lummi Nation, Swinomish, Suquamish and Tulalip tribes in Western Washington, as well as environmental groups on both sides of the border.

Trudeau’s announcement was embraced by many in Canada’s heartland province of Alberta, where oil-sand production of bitumen is a big part of the economy, and was supported by some in British Columbia.

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Trudeau said that 99% of Canada’s oil is now shipped to the United States, often at a substantial discount. He said that was not an acceptable situation and it was important to diversify to other nations. “As we have seen over the last few years, anything can happen to our neighbors to the south.”

Some skeptics question whether the Canadian bitumen, which requires specialized refinery capabilities, will readily find new markets in Asia, where there are plenty of other crude-oil options.

The project is expected to cost more than $5.4 billion in U.S. dollars, and this is Trudeau’s second approval of the project.

An aerial view of the Westridge Marine Terminal 
 in Burnaby, B.C. The expansion project is expected to increase tanker traffic from the terminal from about five to 34 tankers a month. (Jonathan Hayward / The Associated Press file, 2018)
An aerial view of the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C. The expansion project is expected to increase tanker traffic from the terminal from about five to 34 tankers a month. (Jonathan Hayward / The Associated Press file, 2018)

Trudeau initially approved the project. He also backed an unusual government buyout of the pipeline from Texas-based Kinder Morgan in a deal that closed last year.

The need for the new approval results from a decision released by The Federal Court of Appeal in Canada in 2018. The court found that Canada’s National Energy Board had not properly addressed the impacts on orcas, and the concerns of First Nations were not adequately considered.

“The Board unjustifiably defined the scope of the Project under review not to include Project-related tanker traffic,” the ruling stated. “The unjustified exclusion of marine shipping from the scope of the Project led to successive, unacceptable deficiencies in the Board’s report and recommendations.”

This triggered another round of consultations with native groups as well as new steps to address environmental concerns and the risks of spills.

In recommending approval of the project in February, Canada’s National Energy Board imposed 156 conditions if the project is approved, intended to cover a range of impacts, including emergency preparedness and response, consultation with affected indigenous communities, and pipeline safety and integrity.

But the board, in a February report, acknowledged there was no significant controversy “that Project-related marine shipping is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. “

In making the case for project approval, the report noted that the project-related marine shipping would represent a relatively small increase in the total vessel traffic in the Salish Sea, “and that increased pressure on the Salish Sea and its marine life can be anticipated regardless of whether the Project proceeds.”

Trudeau, on Tuesday, said the court was right to conclude that “we needed to do better,” and praised the work that was done to improve environmental protections and indigenous consultations after the ruling. He also said that some, or perhaps even all, of the project’s ownership could be sold to indigenous groups.

“At the end of the day, we listened and we acted on what we heard,” Trudeau said.