Cascadians south of the 49th parallel have heard for years about the Keystone XL pipeline, but many of them know little or nothing about the two pipelines proposed to cross British Columbia: nearly Keystone-sized pipes that would sluice tar sands oil from Alberta to Asia by way of the Pacific Northwest coast. Both projects have been intensely controversial in Canada—probably even more so than Keystone was in the United States—and both may collapse in the face of stalwart opposition.

In hopes of shedding some light on BC’s pipeline backlash, we present a (very abridged) account of what’s happened lately.

The Basics

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

First announced in 2006, the Northern Gateway pipeline, backed by energy giant Enbridge, would run from Bruderheim, Alberta (near Edmonton), to a marine terminal at Kitimat, in northern BC. It would traverse about 730 miles, with an expected crude oil capacity of about 525,000 barrels per day. More recently, Kinder Morgan proposed an expansion of its existing line in southern British Columbia, the Trans Mountain Pipeline that would nearly triple its capacity to 890,000 barrels per day along the 710 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, to terminals near Vancouver, BC, and on Puget Sound in Washington.

The consequences of building either of the projects could be severe. Opponents worry about issues including the increased risk of oil spills on land or in marine waters, increasing greenhouse gas pollution from an expanded oil supply, abrogating the legal rights of First Nations, and further encouraging the destructive extraction techniques employed by Canadian oil sands companies.

Although each pipeline was proposed earlier, our story starts in 2012 when BC Premier Christy Clark announced five conditions that any company proposing to build oil pipelines in BC would need to meet before receiving approval from her Liberal Party government:

  1. Successful completion of the environmental review process.
  2. World-leading marine oil spill prevention, response, and recovery systems.
  3. World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response, and recovery systems.
  4. First Nations opportunities and treaty rights must be respected.
  5. British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of proposed heavy oil projects that reflect the risk borne by the province.

The project backers promised to meet these conditions and commence building their pipelines, but their promises proved hollow.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline

In January 2016, the BC provincial government, through its Environment Minister Mary Polak, announced that it would formally oppose Kinder Morgan’s plans to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline because the company had failed to provide adequate plans for oil spills. The province did not rule out the possibility, however, that Kinder Morgan could meet those requirements in the future, and the company again promised compliance.

Yet just two days later, a BC Supreme Court decision complicated the review process further. In a ruling on the Northern Gateway project, the Court held that the province could not grant Canada’s National Energy Board sole jurisdiction over the project, which the province had done with both proposals. Instead, the Court determined that Victoria must complete its own environmental review, as well as consult with First Nations over the pipeline route and treaty rights for Northern Gateway. And the strong implication was that the province must undertake the same level of review for Kinder Morgan’s project, which it had not.

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  • Within a few days of the BC Supreme Court decision, activists in Canada, alongside First Nations representatives, called on recently elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt Canada’s federal-level review of the Trans Mountain expansion. In the meantime, however, the National Energy Board was proceeding with hearings on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, even though “intervenors” in the case (including US tribes) were raising concerns that an oil spill in the Salish Sea could harm their fishing rights and cultural heritage.

    Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline

    The #NorthernGateway pipeline has an expected crude oil capacity of about 525,000 barrels per day.
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    Though the Trans Mountain pipeline has faced numerous obstacles, it is in fact less troubled than the Northern Gateway project. Although the Canada national government conditionally approved the pipeline in 2014, project backer Enbridge has stumbled into a hornet’s nest of problems, among them a First Nations clan that for several years has opposed pipelines through its lands in northern BC. In addition, First Nations and environmental groups have launched multiple legal challenges against the project, including the one recently decided in the BC Supreme Court.

    In November 2015, shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Trudeau directed his Transportation Minister to finalize a moratorium on oil tanker traffic along BC’s North Coast. Many observers believe the tanker moratorium would finish the Gateway project. Others are not so sure, and an Enbridge spokesperson reported that the company was consulting with lawyers on overturning the ban, if enacted. All the same, Enbridge reportedly must start construction activities by the end of 2016, or its permits for the project will lapse.

    In January 2016, the Canadian government revised the national review of pipelines (as well as that of liquefied natural gas projects), which included delaying a federal cabinet decision on the Kinder Morgan expansion until December 2016. The proposal drew mixed reviews from pipeline promoters and opponents, and the ultimate outcome for the two BC oil pipeline projects remains uncertain.


    Few regions in the world have seen an onslaught of coal, oil, and gas export projects comparable to the tsunami that has flooded the Pacific Northwest in recent years. Pinched between huge fossil fuel reserves in the interior of North America and the voracious energy markets of Asia, Cascadia is proving that a vigorous opposition movement can defy even the most powerful industries on earth. Like so many projects in Oregon and Washington, the big oil pipelines in British Columbia, originally considered sure bets, are running aground on a cross-border wall of resistance, the thin green line.

    More Thin Green Line research here.

    John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant.