Start of Trans Mountain pipeline construction amid election a threat to Liberals in B.C., say observers

‘People are starting to wake up to how badly planned this pipeline is, and I think it will be a major issue during the election campaign,’ says B.C. NDP MP Peter Julian.

Pipeline protestors are pictured in Vancouver in 2017. Protests are widely expected to kick off amid the start of construction work at Trans Mountain sites in the Greater Vancouver Area, presenting an electoral risk to Liberals in the region. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project will be underway during the federal election, and while the start of work may steal steam from certain Conservative attacks, observers say it’s overall likely bad news for Liberal fortunes in seat-rich British Columbia.

“From the Liberals’ perspective, it’s a big problem. I really, for the life of me, don’t understand why they’re moving forward� with construction during the campaign, said Innovative Research’s Greg Lyle.

On the plus side, shovels in the ground on the project takes “some of the heat out of the anger that they’ve been receiving� from pipeline supporters in Alberta, and would serve as a positive signal to foreign markets about investing in Canada and as a counter to related Conservative attacks, said Mr. Lyle.

But those 34 federal Alberta ridings—three of which are currently held by Liberals—are nonetheless “unlikely� to vote Liberal this October, he said. By comparison, B.C., and the Greater Vancouver Area in particular, are potential growth areas for the party, but if the protests widely expected at construction sites—in particular in the hotbed of pipeline activity and opposition that is Burnaby—lead to arrests and attract news coverage, it could tip crucial centre-left swing voters in B.C. to instead vote NDP or Green, said Mr. Lyle. To a lesser degree, it could also lend ammunition to the Bloc Québécois in Quebec.

An online survey conducted by Innovative Research between June 28 and July 6 of 2,515 Canadians found that, among Liberal respondents, 24 per cent had mixed views about their party. By comparison, 22 per cent of both Conservative partisans and NDP partisans reported mixed views about their respective parties, suggesting the Liberals currently have the “weakest hold on the current vote,� said Mr. Lyle.

The Liberals are aiming to balance this fall’s electoral fight on an “them and us� narrative, said Mr. Lyle, where the party is seen as the best hope for the centre-left to keep “crazy right-wingers� out of government.

“But if they’re the people that are building this pipeline that people in the centre-left are opposed to, then they become the ‘them’ … it creates alienation; it primes a negative consideration that they don’t need,� he said. “Building the pipeline, making the pipeline newsworthy makes it very easy for the Greens, the NDP, and the Bloc to say, ‘how can these people really be against climate change when they are building the new pipeline.’�

The Trans Mountain expansion project will see the existing 1,146-kilometre pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver twinned and extended to reach tidewater in Vancouver, involving the construction of 987 kilometres of new pipeline, new pump stations, storage tanks, and the like.

The feds bought the existing pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5-billion in 2018, finalizing the sale on the eve of the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to quash cabinet approval for the expansion project, putting a halt to construction activities that were then ramping up and forcing the government to redo its consultations with Indigenous communities and order the National Energy Board to redo its environmental assessment of the project.

Cabinet re-approved the pipeline’s expansion on June 21. An updated cost estimate for the expansion project has yet to be indicated. Originally $7.4-billion, former owner Kinder Morgan projected it would instead cost $9.3-billion in August 2018, and Living Oceans, a project opponent, has estimated it could be between $12- and $15-billion.

The purchase of the pipeline gives the federal government arms-length control over the existing pipeline and its expansion through Trans Mountain, a Crown corporation.

On Aug. 21, Trans Mountain issued notices to proceed to its prime construction contractors, giving 30 days to mobilize equipment and start hiring workers and procuring goods. Trans Mountain has said it expects 4,200 construction jobs will be created by the end of year as a result.

Work immediately got underway at three Trans Mountain sites in Burnaby, B.C. on Aug. 21: on land at the Westridge Marine Terminal, which is getting new dock facilities including three new berths for tankers (some permits for work here remain outstanding); at the Burnaby Terminal, which is being expanded to add 14 new storage tanks (to 26 total on Burnaby Mountain) and two new delivery lines connecting to the Westridge terminal; and at the planned Burnaby Mountain Tunnel, where tunnel-boring will take place to create a 2.6-kilometre tunnel underground to newly connect the two terminals.

The company had also sought a go-ahead to begin work along the right-of-way in Alberta, from the Edmonton terminal that marks the start of the pipeline to Edson, Alta., but still has to meet some some conditions and regulatory requirements before getting NEB approval. Trans Mountain has projected it will be putting pipe in the ground along certain spreads, including at the three aforementioned terminals, before year’s end.

Pipeline business case a ‘house of cards,’ says NDP MP Julian

NDP MP Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.) said he expects the pipeline to be a “major issue during the election campaign� and have a “significant impact� on voters across B.C., including in his own riding, where pipeline expansion work is set to take place, including along the Brunette River Conservation Area, which is home to a salmon-bearing stream. He said he plans to raise the expected impacts to this area as a campaign issue as he doesn’t “think people in this area are as well aware of those.�

With construction work starting, “people are starting to wake up to how badly planned this pipeline is, and I think it will be a major issue during the election campaign,� he said.

“It will hurt Liberal support, I think. It certainly will help other parties that are opposed to the pipeline, and I think our NDP candidates are speaking out very clearly about this.�

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will run through part of NDP MP Peter Julian’s riding of New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Julian said he has “no doubt� the Liberal government pushed for construction to begin as soon as possible out of “cynical political calculation� to give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) a rebuttal to Conservative attacks. He criticized the government for trying “to ram this through� before court appeals challenging cabinet’s re-approval are decided on, and before releasing updated construction cost estimates. In addition, he noted serious questions raised over the economic benefits the pipeline expansion will ultimately bring, calling the business case presented “a complete house of cards.�

Expected to face a particularly tough fight this October as a result of the Trudeau government’s re-approval of the pipeline project is first-time Liberal MP Terry Beech, whose riding of Burnaby North-Seymour, B.C., is home to the pipeline’s Burnaby terminus and a tank farm, located on Burnaby Mountain, that’s set to be expanded and has proven a point of particular concern (it sits next to a conservation area, among other things). It’s been called ground zero of project opposition.

Mr. Beech was not available for an interview with The Hill Times.

Mr. Beech won in 2015 with 36.1 per cent of the vote, a roughly 6.5 percentage point lead on the NDP candidate, former B.C. judge Carol Baird Ellan. This October, he’ll be going up against former NDP MP Svend Robinson, who’s been vocal in opposing the expansion project.

During his 2015 campaign, Mr. Beech spoke of the need for the project to be reviewed under a new, promised pipeline approval process. While the Liberals have since revamped this process, review of the expansion project ultimately went through the old National Energy Board set up. He’s also been quoted as having said at an all-candidates debate during the race that “no project can go ahead without the support of the community and without the support of partner First Nations.� A number of First Nations communities have signed on to and endorsed the project, but vocal Indigenous opposition to the project remains.

The challenge Mr. Beech faces to hold onto his seat on Oct. 21 doesn’t appear lost on the rookie MP, who’s done much to connect with constituents and explain his, and the government’s, position. In Maclean’s annual Parliamentarians of the Year awards in 2018, he was lauded for Best Civic Outreach.

The Trans Mountain project was a “consistent point of discussion� during the 2015 race in Burnaby North-Seymour, as Mr. Beech himself noted as part of his presentation to the Trans Mountain ministerial review panel in August 2016.

Along with thousands of conversations, by phone and in person, Mr. Beech’s office surveyed some 44,000 households in his riding and found 58 per cent of respondents were opposed to the expansion project.

Liberal MP Pamela-Goldsmith Jones (West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, B.C.) was also unavailable for an interview with The Hill Times. Liberal MP Randeep Sarai, who represents Surrey Centre, through which the pipeline will run, did not respond to an interview request by filing deadline.

Liberal MP Ken Hardie’s riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells, B.C. is among the 21 federal ridings through which the pipeline expansion will run, with it set to cut through the northern end of his electoral district. In 2015, Mr. Hardie defeated Conservative incumbent Nina Grewal to win the riding, with a vote margin of 17.6 percentage points.

Routing concerns had previously been raised by residents in the riding’s Fraser Heights area, said Mr. Hardie, but, to his knowledge, those concerns have since been “resolved,� and in turn, from what he’s heard from constituents over the summer, “nobody’s paying much attention to it� and he doesn’t expect the pipeline to be a major issue in his upcoming fight for re-election. Instead, Mr. Hardie said the issue of guns and gangs, and related cost of living concerns, are much more top of mind for his constituents.

But, he noted, “all politics is local, so the dynamics in our area might be different� from those faced by other Liberal colleagues in the Greater Vancouver Area, flagging for one the race in Mr. Beech’s riding of Burnaby North-Seymour, where “there will be activity.�

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The Hill Times

Laura Ryckewaert is a deputy editor at The Hill Times.

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