In his own words, professor Tim Takaro explains why he has initiated a tree sit protest against the expansion of the TransMountain Pipeline. (Video courtesy of Tim Takaro)

At 63, professor Tim Takaro didn’t see himself as a tree sit protester.

But now he’s living 82 feet up in the air on a sling between two cottonwoods, in a one-man protest against the expansion of the TransMountain Pipeline.

Takaro is a Vancouver-area physician and professor of health sciences on sabbatical from Simon Fraser University. He has published studies about the health risks of the pipeline expansion, spoken at review hearings for the project and petitioned his government to stop it. So far, to no avail.

The estimated $12 to $15 billion project was purchased by the Canadian federal government from developer Kinder Morgan in 2018.

The expansion twins an existing pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia, nearly tripling the capacity to move tar sands oil from the interior of the country to the sea, with the goal of capturing better prices in overseas markets. The expansion is well underway, with an estimated 5,000 people at work on the project, despite multiple court challenges and the steadfast opposition to the project in B.C., including from many First Nations.

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“So I find myself up a tree,” Takaro said in a phone interview Friday.

He’s living in tent pitched on a fold out shelf, suspended from a line slung between cottonwoods right in the path of the planned expansion. The trees along the Brunette River in New Westminster just outside the Vancouver area are scheduled to be cut for the pipeline project between now and September 15 – so Takaro decided to do what he could to save the trees, and the planet.

He set up his tree sit Monday morning in a grove southeast of where the Trans-Canada Highway crosses North Road in Burnaby. He has been up there since, supplied by supporters on the ground. So far, no police have come. A security guard from the pipeline stopped by briefly Friday, but soon left.

“We understand there are a variety of views regarding the TransMountain Expansion Project and respect the right to peaceful, lawful expressions of opinion,” a spokesperson for TransMountain wrote in an email to The Seattle Times on Friday.

The company maintains the pipeline is safe and a boost to the Canadian energy industry and customers, including in Washington, that depend on products refined from Canadian dilbit, or diluted bitumen oil. That includes gasoline and jet fuel made at Washington refineries supplied by a spur from the pipeline that crosses the border at Sumas, Whatcom County.

The pipeline is expected to be at full capacity from the day it opens, and will “unlock billions of economic value,” the statement from TransMountain continued.

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Takaro maintains the expansion will never be built. “People will come, and they will be arrested. We are not going to let this pipeline go through.”

His aerial camp is in no forest primeval: The Trans-Canada Highway roars by on one side, and railroad tracks are on the other. But there is a salmon stream down below, too, and the comfort of the trees. Some comfort.

During a downpour this week, Takaro wondered about the propensity of cottonwoods to drop limbs. But so far, so good.

The pipeline is a public health and climate disaster, Takaro said. “This is a climate killer,” he said of the pipeline. He called the review process of the pipeline by National Energy Board “rigged from the start.”

The board acknowledged increased risk of extinction for southern resident killer whales from a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic to the terminal but decided it was outweighed by Canada’s economic interest.

Peter Julian, a member of Parliament for the area, said he is proud of his constituent and supports the protest. “He is putting himself in peril to get people to understand how important it is to stop this project,” Julian said.

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“We could be spending half as much on clean energy and creating twice as many jobs.”

Jonathan Patz is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, where he directs the Global Health Institute. The COVID-19 pandemic is just a warm-up for the pandemonium he sees coming from climate change, from more infectious disease outbreaks to killer heat waves and violent floods, famine and social unrest.

“Climate change really should be viewed as a health emergency,” Patz said. “For this pipeline to be developed in the year 2020 is counter to science, and especially with the implications for the next generation, humanity.”

Balding and bespectacled, soft-spoken, married 30 years and with two adult kids, Takaro perhaps doesn’t fit the hippie tree sitter stereotype. But he feels he is in the right place, at the right time, with the right message.

“I have been working on the health impacts of this pipeline since 2014 and following the rules,” he said. “I got to the end of my rope, you could say. I had to do something.”