In a surprise Sunday afternoon announcement, the company backing a huge oil pipeline proposal in British Columbia cried uncle. Citing conflicts between the Canadian government, which supports the project, and British Columbia (plus other local governments), which vehemently oppose it, Kinder Morgan said it would stop spending any money to advance the project.

Expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline might, for example, result in a doubling of the Puget Sound Pipeline, the oil delivery system that runs through northwest Washington.
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Or at least stop spending temporarily. Giving a deadline of May 31, Kinder Morgan says it will seek clarity before sinking any more money in its plans.

The clash between governments is titanic. Immediately following the announcement, Prime Minister  Justin Trudeau doubled down on his support for the expanded pipeline, calling it “a core national interest” and insisting that “the Trans Mountain Pipeline will be built.”

Meanwhile, BC Premier Joe Horgan squared off against Trudeau, saying: “British Columbians expect their government to stand up for their interests and our coast, and to do everything we can to protect our land and waters, our coastal communities and our local economies. The federal process failed to consider BC’s interests and the risk to our province.”

Yet the issue is truly Cascadian, not solely Canadian. Expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline raises the stakes south of the 49th parallel, too.

It might, for example, result in a doubling of the Puget Sound Pipeline, the oil delivery system that runs through northwest Washington. In fact, in at least five places in the marketing materials and prospectus documents for the Trans Mountain pipeline, Kinder Morgan asserts that the Puget Sound Pipeline “is capable of being expanded to increase its capacity” to 500,000 barrels per day.

It might also mean more tar sands-bearing tank barges traveling the length of Puget Sound to deliver crude to Tacoma. Already, roughly one loaded oil barge per week makes the passage from Burnaby, British Columbia, through some of the most ecologically (and economically) important waters in the Northwest: Rosario Strait in the San Juan Islands, Admiralty Inlet between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend, and then past Edmonds, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, and Vashon Island, before reaching Commencement Bay. To that end, transcripts of hearings with Canadian federal regulators show that representatives from Tacoma’s refinery have been lobbying in support of the pipeline expansion, which would allow them to obtain greater supplies.

A tripling of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline would likely unleash more expansions at the big north Puget Sound oil refineries, such as the one underway at BP’s Cherry Point facility, a project that will degrade air quality at North Cascades and Olympic National Park.

If built, the new pipeline would send, on average, one additional loaded oil tanker per day—each freighted with perhaps 400,000 barrels of crude oil—through the hazardous waters of the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A major spill in the Salish Sea could easily trigger an ecological catastrophe. According to an authoritative 2015 report from the US National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, a significant fraction would likely sink to the sea floor and remain unrecoverable for decades, if not centuries, harming Dungeness crab, rockfish, sand lance, and other bottom-dwellers. It would also seriously threaten migrating salmon and the totemic, endangered Southern resident killer whales, which ultimately depend on these members of the marine food chain, especially Chinook salmon.

  • Given everything at risk, it’s no wonder the project has set up a showdown of cinematic proportions.

    Imagine if Standing Rock had been not in the remote and frigid Dakotas but on the edge of Hollywood, on a mountain that everyone loves, and had been supported by state and local governments. That’s the tactical situation Kinder Morgan faces with its Trans Mountain Pipeline proposal. It’s trying to build a pipe for Tar Sands crude that ends in greater Vancouver. This is Hollywood north, a metro area that aspires to be the greenest on Earth, and a place brimming with students and fired-up climate hawks.

    Already, thousands have been protesting, hundreds have been arrested for civil disobedience, and the story is hardly even out yet. The protest site is not some frozen campground. It’s accessible by transit, in a city with plenty of guest rooms.

    If Kinder Morgan and Trudeau proceed, it could easily grow into the biggest civil disobedience blockade in living memory. Think about it: it assembles in one controversy the rights of indigenous people (the tribes and First Nations of the Salish Sea vehemently oppose the oil expansion project, have vowed to fight it at every turn, and are leading protests against it); the safety of communities and the Salish Sea; the future of the planetary climate; the regional identity of Cascadia; and the distrust of Big Oil (Kinder Morgan has a ghoulish track record of messes and malfeasance).

    That’s the critical context, which Kinder Morgan now, finally, seems to understand.

    This article includes research by Michael Riordan and Britany Kee’ ya aa. Lindley.