BTL 2023

The People’s Pipeline


Photo by SumOfUs

In an era of neoliberal privatization when governments the world over are hastening to sell off state owned assets and public services for a mess of pottage, Justin Trudeau bucks the trend by ponying up $4.5 billion to buy the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, with complete disregard for the resolute opposition by the B.C. government, many Indigenous groups, most environmentalists and thousands of citizens across the country deeply worried about the ecological impact and risks of both the pipeline expansion and the ensuing escalation of tanker traffic.

You might think this was some unexpected throwback to a politics of economic nationalism of the kind Trudeau’s father embraced in the 1970s when the Liberals and the NDP teamed up to create Petro- Canada.

But the actual motives look even sketchier. And the timing seems that much stranger in light of the Liberals’ decision to sink $35 billion into the Canada Infrastructure Bank, a scheme purportedly intended to attract private investors to big new revenue-generating (read user fees) infrastructure projects, but which looks to be laying the groundwork for the privatization, by the back door, of existing infrastructure from airports to hospitals. So why the missed beat in the rhythm with Kinder Morgan?

One rationalization we can rule out is the Trudeau government’s cake-and-eat-it line that pipelines carrying diluted bitumen from what the Environmental Defence organization dubbed the most environmentally destructive project on Earth are vital to fund the fight against climate change. It’s reminiscent of Ronald Reagan building missiles for peace. In fact, as sustainable energy expert Mark Jaccard observed (Globe and Mail, February 20, 2018), Trudeau knows full well that spurring further development of the tar sands with pipeline expansions guarantees Canada’s failure to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets under the Paris Accord.

Bruce Livesey has speculated (The Guardian, May 31, 2018) that the Kinder Morgan pipeline purchase was designed to avert a lawsuit by Chinese corporations under the Investor State Arbitration clause of the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement. Negotiated under Harper and ratified with the support of Trudeau’s Liberals, the treaty contained a promise to have a pipeline built from Alberta to B.C. Trudeau, Livesey suggests, is “desperate to keep China happy,” presumably due to his hopes of a Canada-China free trade agreement.

Still, the price of the pipeline combined with the cost of actually building it ($6.9 billion according to a Financial Post estimate) adds up to over $11 billion. That’s a hefty price tag for a safeguard against being sued, especially when you factor in the costs of cleaning up potentially devastating dilbit spills.

Another explanation is that the pipeline purchase is the federal Liberals’ bid to placate Alberta and secure support for Ottawa’s carbon-pricing plan — a plan that Ottawa recently downgraded to appease industry. No doubt Rachel Notley wants the pipeline expansion built; her political future likely depends on it. But does the fate of an NDP Premier weigh that heavily on the will of the Trudeau Liberals, even at the risk of alienating BC Premier Horgan?

Of course, the Trudeau government’s stated intention, on the “if you build it they will come” logic, is to land private investors. Possible takers range from an Indigenous consortium to Kinder Morgan itself – the latter having kindly been relieved of risk by Canadian taxpayers as a result of the government’s decision to indemnify buyers against any losses incurred due to determined and persistent resistance to the project, doubtless including the many legal challenges, like those brought by a number of Indigenous communities on the grounds that they have neither consented to the Trans Mountain expansion nor been meaningfully consulted.

So the question remains cui bono? Not the taxpayers liable for billions in possible losses. Not the Indigenous nations whose land and water stand to be irreparably despoiled by a serious spill. Not B.C. coastal residents. Not menaced marine life. Not construction workers who will gain only a few thousand (mainly temporary) jobs, contrary to the inflated figures originally floated. Not even the Canadian economy in the long run since, as Howard Mann and Aaron Cosbey aptly argue (, April 15, 2018), excessive dependence on fossil fuel exports is ultimately a doomed proposition. And certainly not future generations of humans and other species who will pay the price for climate chaos accelerated by the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.

The only winners in this toxic transaction are the Kinder Morgan executives who are unloading a pipeline that was proving inexpedient for a tidy profit (a return of no less than637 per cent according to one report), along with the assorted domestic and foreign firms mortgaging the Earth to profit from dirty oil.

A CD editor for 15 years and now a coodinating editor, Andrea is a Montréal based historian, writer, translator, and activist.

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indigenous Resistance).


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