Zero Pathways for Approval of Kinder Morgan Tar Sands Pipe

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion would rely on nearly 350 oil supertanker every year.
Credit: Seong-Woo Seo/Flickr

These are interesting times in Canada. Just over a year ago, the conservative administration of Stephen Harper was ousted from power by a landslide in Canada’s federal elections. The election ended nearly a decade of heavy-handed political maneuvering that saw environmental laws gutted and government transparency subverted. It also signaled that Canada was perhaps prepared to take up its place in the fight against climate change—an issue that has proved vexing for a country that, under Harper, had increasingly tied its economic future to one of the world’s largest point sources of carbon pollution, Alberta’s tar sands. A year later, Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has often said the right things publicly but has yet to take any truly bold action on climate change. Indeed, he has often gotten bogged down in trying to argue that Canada can be a climate leader (he was strongly behind the push to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius at the Paris climate talks) while also supporting the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands industry via new pipelines.

The story behind that irreconcilable position is one not many Americans follow. But we should. While we were busy battling the Keystone XL pipeline, the tar sands industry was busy working on other ways to get tar sands oil to U.S. refining centers. The option closest to becoming reality is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion—a new pipeline that would triple industry’s export capacity to the Vancouver, British Columbia, area. Why pay attention? Two reasons. First, approval or denial of the pipeline’s federal permits from the Canadian government are expected by December 19, 2016. Second, the tar sands oil slated to be moved by Kinder Morgan is destined for U.S. markets, primarily California’s heavy refining centers around San Francisco and Los Angeles [1].

Which brings us back to these interesting times. Despite signals that Trudeau favors approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal, a panel appointed by his government to review the pipeline’s permitting process released a report last week and gave him approximately zero legitimate handholds for doing so. It’s a surprising twist in what has not only been an arduous and controversy-prone process but also an outcome that highlights the reality facing the tar sands industry: Global energy demands are beginning to change, and there isn’t a place for more tar sands.

While the majority of the Ministerial Panel’s report provides fodder for opposing Kinder Morgan’s plans, it is the final 11 pages that really hammer this point home. Instead of offering up conclusions or opinions as to the direction Trudeau’s government should take, the panel asked six deeply cutting questions:

  1. Can construction of a new Trans Mountain Pipeline be reconciled with Canada’s climate change commitments?
  2. In the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy, how can policy-makers effectively assess projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline?
  3. How might Cabinet square approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline with its commitment to reconciliation with First Nations and to the UNDRIP principles of “free, prior, and informed consent?”
  4. Given the changed economic and political circumstances, the perceived flaws in the NEB process, and also the criticism of the Ministerial Panel’s own review, how can Canada be confident in its assessment of the project’s economic rewards and risks?
  5. If approved, what route would best serve aquifer, municipal, aquatic, and marine safety?
  6. How does federal policy define the terms “social license” and “Canadian public interest” and their inter-relationships? [2]

The first question is particularly striking, because the answer is easy: It can’t. Today, production in Alberta’s tar sands relies on the existence of an already substantial network of export pipelines. Studies of these pipelines have shown that there is enough capacity to haul the oil currently produced, as well as all the oil that will be produced by production projects that are under construction. Leaked government reports confirm this finding, noting that new pipelines likely aren’t needed until at least 2025. In short, this means that these projects are purely future-looking—they’re about creating the means for significant industry expansion. And with that expansion comes significant growth in carbon emissions. Sure, the rest of Canada could drastically cut emissions from other sectors to keep the tar sands emissions bubble from undermining the country’s international commitments, but it’s hard to see that as a viable strategy. Indeed, like it or not, Canada’s emissions have been rising since 2009, so adding new tar sands emissions via construction of projects like Kinder Morgan’s will only exacerbate and magnify this already-substantial challenge.

The other questions highlight additionally insurmountable impediments for the pipeline’s legitimate approval. At least 59 First Nations along the pipeline’s proposed route have voiced public opposition, demonstrating strong evidence that “free, prior, and informed consent” for the project is far from being granted. Safety issues also plague the proposal, especially those relating to the cleanup of tar sands oil when it is spilled into freshwater and marine environments. The best available science on the subject is damning—finding major hurdles for responders and a high likelihood of long-term contamination—but was ignored by the panel conducting the pipeline’s environmental review. Meanwhile, British Columbia has endured two massive failures in marine spill response over the last year. The first involved what should have been a relatively minor event in English Bay (near Vancouver), while the second involves an ongoing marine catastrophe off the shores of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s territory near Bella Bella.

Image courtesy of

South of the border, many of these same questions also apply. Climate change—and the manmade emissions behind its acceleration—are a shared global problem, and we need to support policies and decisions in our own country and elsewhere that meaningfully drive them down. Major new oil infrastructure meant to facilitate growth in fossil fuel production for the next 30 to 40 years doesn’t fit into that calculus. Similarly, though Kinder Morgan’s pipeline is located wholly in Canada, its tar sands oil isn’t staying there. Once it reaches Vancouver, it will be loaded onto nearly 350 new oil tankers every single year and those ships will navigate shared international waters in the Salish Sea before making a beeline down the U.S. West Coast to California refineries. The spill risks that have raised alarm bells in Canada are shared by the U.S. and demand our attention. This is the reason NRDC has begun calling for a national moratorium on tar sands tankers in U.S. waters—it’s a threat few people are aware of and that our spill responders are poorly equipped to truly face. Meanwhile, sensitive ecosystems and treasured species—bottom-dwelling organisms and the salmon and orca that depend on them, for example—have little chance for survival if a major tanker accident were to occur.


[1] Asia is often mentioned as the destination for tar sands crude moved by Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. However, a long list of factors suggests that this is baseless misdirection. These factors include a lack of open heavy oil refining capacity, long-term supply contracts with Russian producers, debt payments made in the form of heavy crude oil from Venezuela, and aggressive pricing by Saudi Arabian producers. Agnihotri, G., “What Does the Latest Possible China–Russia Oil Deal Mean to the Global Energy Market?” Seeking Alpha, May 10, 2016, Ulmer, A. and C. Pons, “Venezuela Says Better Oil Loans Deal Reached with China,” Reuters, May 16, 2016,; Wilkin, S., “Saudi Arabia Cuts Oil Price to Asia as Iran Battle Heats Up,” Bloomberg, July 31, 2016, Meanwhile, declining California heavy oil production means that its refineries have the ability to take increasing volumes of heavy oil from new sources. NRDC, “West Coast Tar Sands Invasion,” April 2015, p. 3,

[2] See pages 46-47:

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