Justin Trudeau’s Pipeline Boondoggle

An energy company wasn't sure they could complete a pipeline expansion to transport some of the world's dirtiest oil. Luckily for them, Justin Trudeau stepped in to help.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference at the Canadian Consulate General, May 17, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty

On Wednesday morning Steve Kean, CEO of the energy company Kinder Morgan, jubilantly told a conference call of investors, “We will be paid the $4.5 billion even if a third-party buyer is not found.” It was the conclusion of a long and difficult saga for the Texas oil company formed from the ashes of Enron — one which had finally, and against all odds, arrived at a happy conclusion.

Their proposed Trans Mountain expansion, which would triple the capacity of an existing pipeline running between Canada’s tar sands in Alberta and the coast of British Columbia, looked like it might never be built earlier this year. Court challenges from indigenous groups alleging a lack of consultation, as well as from the local governments of Vancouver, the suburb of Burnaby, and the province of British Columbia were winding their way through the court system, while widespread protests and acts of civil disobedience routinely shut down Kinder Morgan facilities.

These are the public uncertainties that Kinder Morgan claimed led them to issue an ultimatum: clear the path to construction by May 31, or we’ll cancel the project.

In reality, these were far from the company’s only problems. Having spent the proceeds of a stock offering to pay down the parent company’s debt, Kinder Morgan’s Canadian pipeline subsidiary was also struggling to raise the over $8 billion required for construction and was facing an uncertain market for the product they would be piping to Canada’s coast.

But for a Canadian government squeezed by the increasingly frenetic demands of the Alberta government to get a pipeline built, it was a project that was simply too big to fail.

“The project became too risky for a commercial entity to go forward with it; that’s what Kinder Morgan told us,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an interview with Bloomberg following the announcement. “We are going to ensure that it gets built so that we can get our resources to new markets.”

That doesn’t sound like the environmental champion who, when campaigning for election in 2015, famously said, “Governments might grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.” Indeed, since his election, the Trudeau government have actually sought to sell an increase in tar-sands production and the building of new pipelines as necessary steps to reach the country’s climate goals — a paradoxical position that flies in the face of the scientific consensus on climate change.

“Our plan is to use this time of transition to Canada’s advantage by building the infrastructure to get our resources to global markets and using the revenues to invest in clean forms of energy,” said Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in March. “That’s why we’ve approved pipelines, including the Trans Mountain expansion, and we’re determined to see them built.”

Kinder Morgan’s stock price surged immediately on news that they had unloaded this toxic asset. Meanwhile the Canadian government promised their purchase was “temporary” and they would soon find a third party to buy the pipeline once the uncertainty was resolved and construction had started — a textbook example of socializing the cost of a commercial project while privatizing its profits.

Finding that third-party buyer the government is promising, however, appears unlikely. To sweeten the pot, the Canadian government announced it would indemnify a buyer against losses related to provincial or municipal government actions, but also in the event that the pipeline cannot be completed by a certain date despite “commercially reasonable efforts.”

So even if a buyer is found, the Canadian government will remain on the hook for billions of dollars in payments to the energy company and billions more in construction costs for the pipeline.

The Canadian government is now the proud owner of a project that, if completed, would facilitate a massive expansion of Canada’s tar sands, which produce a sticky, tar-like crude that requires additional refining and is among the most carbon-intensive fuels in the world. The scientific consensus is that the tar sands needs to be phased out, and roughly 80 percent of its oil left in the ground, in order to avoid runaway climate change.

It’s long been an open secret that Kinder Morgan is running a shakedown on Canada, in hopes of unloading a damaged and uncertain asset they no longer had the capital to complete and were unsure would ever be built, or ever be profitable if it was. Their last hope was that the Canadian government would play the sucker and take it off their hands. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, goaded on by the Alberta government and caught in a domestic political trap of his own making, was all too happy to oblige.

Court Challenges Dog Pipeline Project

The court cases currently facing the pipeline are numerous. The province of British Columbia, whose social-democratic NDP government was elected last year on a promise to use every legal tool available to stop the pipeline, has asked the BC court of appeal to rule on the legality of draft legislation that would allow the province to regulate the quantity of oil shipped through its territory via a permitting system.

Both the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby (in which the pipeline’s main marine terminal is located) and the province of British Columbia have also filed motions with the federal court of appeal seeking to appeal the National Energy Board’s approval of the project. Both were rejected, but Burnaby has filed notice of their intent to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile eight First Nations on the pipeline route who filed suits seeking a judicial review of the Canadian government’s approval of the pipeline on the basis that consultation with affected indigenous groups was insufficient have had their cases consolidated. They were heard earlier this year by the federal court of appeal. A decision is expected in that case in the coming months. Unlike the reference case brought by the British Columbia government, which seeks to clarify their ability to regulate interprovincial trade and is considered more of a long shot, the indigenous case that consultation was insufficient is considered a strong one.

If that decision goes against the government, or if the government loses on an appeal to the Supreme Court, the pipeline is dead. And, because of the deal with Kinder Morgan, with it will go somewhere between CDN $4.5 and $12 billion of public money.

Even if the courts rule in the government’s favor at every step, indigenous-led resistance to the pipeline in British Columbia will intensify, and every foot of pipe will be a battle. There will be arrests, people chained to everything in sight; the cost of building the pipeline will likely spiral out of control. Meanwhile, indigenous groups across the country have committed to engage in civil disobedience against the pipeline in their own territories.

Most importantly, all indications are that by the time the pipeline is built, the market for the product it transports may not be there. Certainly not at prices that make the investment worthwhile, with some experts now forecasting that $50 a barrel oil is more likely than a return to $100 a barrel.

What’s more, according to a new Reuters report, “The United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently approved new, much stiffer fuel standards for the 50,000 ocean-going vessels which currently burn low-grade, high-sulphur oil.” The new rules, in place by 2020, require no more than 0.5 percent sulphur, a 700 percent reduction from the current average. What does that mean for Alberta’s oil, the oil that would flow through this pipeline? According to journalist Paul McKay, writing in the Energy Mix,

Alberta bitumen will likely be a big loser, because it contains on average some 11 times more sulphur than conventional crude, and results in a high ratio of low-grade Bunker C when refined. As of 2020, according to industry reports, U.S. refinery purchases of diluted bitumen for ship fuel will begin slowing to an eventual trickle, Europe will buy none because it has the wrong refinery profile, and Asian refiners will dedicate new refineries to produce low-sulphur diesel for ship fuel.

“Exactly which Asian countries or refiners have signed long-term contracts to purchase more Alberta bitumen for decades to come?” asks McKay. “Exactly how much have they committed to pay per barrel delivered?” The National Energy Board didn’t ask, and the answer is no one knows.

A Carbon Bomb for the Planet

Finally, there’s the small matter of our survival as a species. A new report from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) concludes that “if Canada lets oil production expand as expected, global emissions could increase by 50 to 150 million tons CO2 by 2030 — the equivalent of putting as many as 32 million cars on the road each year.” This will frustrate global climate targets and slow the global transition to a low-carbon future.

“SEI’s findings raise questions about efforts to expand Canadian oil production, including new, long-lived infrastructure such as the Kinder-Morgan pipeline.”

“The Canadian federal government can significantly increase its ambition and contribution to global climate goals by limiting the future expansion of oil sands extraction,” said SEI senior scientist and author of the report Peter Erickson. “Conversely, a failure to do so could almost fully counteract the climate benefits of its current Climate Action Plan.”

Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have both claimed they are “balancing the environment and the economy” by instituting a national climate-action plan as they simultaneously cheerlead for new pipelines and the rapid expansion of the tar sands. Instead, through this deal, they are screwing the climate and the world in pursuit of political convenience.

In the age of Trump, many Americans pine for a charming, supposedly progressive leader like Trudeau, but nothing Trump has done or will do may have as big an impact on climate change as Trudeau’s relentless pursuit of this pipeline.

That’s because, as author and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben wrote in 2011, Alberta’s “tar sands are the second-largest pool of carbon in the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. If we tap into them in a big way, NASA climatologist James Hansen explained in a paper issued [in 2011], the emissions would mean it’s ‘essentially game over’ for the climate.”

You have to wonder how the younger generation of Canadian voters will react to Trudeau’s decision. They are the ones who propelled him to victory in the last election; in the wake of this and a slew of other policy betrayals, those young people feel lied to and betrayed.

But no matter the impact on Trudeau’s political career, Canadians are about to lose billions of dollars — money that could have paid for hospitals, schools, affordable housing, and public transit; that could have helped make Canada a leader in the renewable energy of the future. Trudeau instead chose to double down on the dirty energy of the past.

This Was Never About Jobs

Despite what Justin Trudeau says about taking action to “create and protect jobs in BC and Alberta” this was never about jobs. The pipeline expansion will produce under 100 permanent jobs, with thousands more temporary jobs in its construction.

For a fraction of what we’re paying Kinder Morgan to help them escape their liability-riddled project, the Canadian government could offer retraining and jobs in renewables to everyone in Alberta and across the country who wants one.

In the United States, Donald Trump has played a cruel joke on coal miners, promising them that the jobs they’ve lost will come back, and feeding them bile and resentment instead of helping them retrain and find new jobs. In Canada, Trudeau is playing an equally cruel joke on workers, selling them a bill of goods about the oil industry instead of helping them to ensure their and their families’ future. When oil crashes or dries up, these workers will be left high and dry.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau claims that the purchase is temporary, that the government plans to unload the project to a buyer once the “uncertainty” of court cases and protests is resolved. But, leaving aside for a moment the unlikeliness of all that “uncertainty” magically disappearing, what if no one wants to buy it?

Morneau made a public call for other buyers during his negotiations with Kinder Morgan. None stepped forward. That’s not surprising: global oil companies know all the things mentioned above and have been pulling out of Alberta in droves. Recent years have seen international oil companies like ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Petronas, Royal Dutch Shell, and many others all walk away from projects in Alberta, citing market forces and projections.

“The only people buying oil sands reserves are Canadian operators,” energy economist Jeff Rubin told Vice. “Foreigners are saying look, this doesn’t make sense today.”

Meanwhile some financial analysts argue that the Canadian government overpaid by as much as $1.2 billion for the project, making it even less likely that a buyer can be found who will compensate the government for its investment.

The truth is that the pipeline is unlikely to ever be built. Kinder Morgan knew that; it’s why they complained about regulatory delays when they hadn’t even applied for half of all the permits they needed to build the pipeline.

This pipeline was always a con, but Kinder Morgan took the Canadian government for suckers, and now we Canadians own it. Kinder Morgan’s problem is now Canadians’ problem, and it’s all thanks to Justin Trudeau.