B.C. about to decide on biggest pipeline yet

Kai Nagata
A proposed gas pipeline in B.C. would run through the Skeena watershed. Photo by Brian Huntington / Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition

Mar. 9, 2023

B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman will soon decide the fate of Enbridge’s Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission Project — and possibly his government. First approved in 2014, the 48-inch pipeline would carry fracked gas across a complex patchwork of sovereign territories to a new LNG terminal on the coast.

Last week, Heyman’s ministry closed consultation with First Nations, giving some Indigenous groups just days to comment on Enbridge’s 98-page application. The company is seeking an emergency override of provincial law to prevent expiry of its project certificate.

At the same time, TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline is becoming a costly boondoggle (more on that below). Polls show public opinion turning against oil and gas expansion. Voters are tired of companies like Enbridge making record profits — then demanding subsidies and special treatment from government.

B.C.’s NDP government is already struggling to reduce greenhouse gas emissions amid a flurry of new fossil fuel projects. Approving another mega pipeline would only deepen that contradiction, with an election coming next year.

Instead, the smart move is to divert support for oil and gas to renewable energy, housing and climate-proof infrastructure.

Enbridge tries to rewind the clock

The Westcoast Connector pipeline was first proposed by Spectra Energy back in 2012. It was rubber-stamped under B.C. premier Christy Clark, an enthusiastic booster of LNG.

Enbridge bought Spectra in 2017, becoming the largest pipeline company on the continent. The certificate for the Westcoast Connector came with the deal. But Enbridge had other priorities — and the company had just been stung by the failure of its Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tanker project in the same part of the world. So the Westcoast Connector pipeline sat on the shelf.

Under B.C.’s environmental assessment law, project certificates are valid for five years. If a company fails to start construction, it can apply for one, five-year extension — then the certificate expires. If that happened, Enbridge would have to start over with a new project review. That’s what the company is now trying to avoid.

B.C. has new climate targets and legislation on Indigenous rights. Ecosystems have changed, leaving 2012 data out of date. If Enbridge applied today to build the biggest pipeline ever proposed in B.C. — after all the painful controversy over Coastal GasLink — it’s not clear the project would be approved.

Enbridge’s Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission Project could become the subject of another heated debate about pipelines, writes Kai Nagata. #BC #LNG #SkeenaWatershed - Twitter

The ‘emergency’ of Indigenous rights

Instead, Enbridge wants its old certificate extended to 2029. Under the law, the only way the environment minister can do this is in the case of “an emergency or other comparable circumstance.” Enbridge lobbyists say two emergencies derailed the project so badly, they need five extra years.

First is COVID-19, which triggered a provincial state of emergency for 15 months. But most of that time, the pipeline lay forgotten. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, spiking global gas prices. That’s the real reason the company is trying to revive this dormant project.

More troubling is Enbridge’s second reason, which is the 2021 court victory by Blueberry River First Nations, known as the Yahey decision. This was a long-delayed bit of justice for Indigenous rights violations that had gone on for decades. Treaty 8 nations had their way of life undercut by relentless fracking, clear-cutting, mining and hydro development.

Enbridge says a temporary pause on new oil and gas projects in Blueberry territory after the court decision created another “emergency.” But Indigenous rights existed long before the Westcoast Connector project and in fact, before British Columbia. If a judge’s recognition of these rights created an emergency for Enbridge, then its business model is seriously flawed.

Coastal GasLink a cautionary tale

The biggest reason not to approve Enbridge’s latest megaproject lies right next door. TC Energy is already $8 billion over budget, with the hardest parts of the route yet to build. Contractors rushing to save money have done serious damage to salmon and steelhead habitat. Paltry fines from regulators have failed to rein the company in.

TC Energy’s tunnel under Wedzin Kwa, the sacred river at the heart of Wet’suwet’en territory, appears to have stalled. Drilling was supposed to be finished last year; the company’s latest construction update says only that it plans to keep trying. Other sensitive watercourse crossings are threatened by the approach of spring breakup, when machines get stuck in the mud.

This summer, Coastal GasLink will return to Icy Pass, where its planned route through the Coast Mountains lies buried by avalanches. Nobody in the world has ever tried to put such a large-diameter pipeline up grades this steep. There’s a reason for that, as TC Energy investors are finding out.

Taxpayers have spent tens of millions on militarized police raids to clear a path for Coastal GasLink. And billions on subsidies for fracking wells and terminal construction at either end of the pipeline. If costs go up any further, TC Energy may have to operate its pipeline at a loss. My guess is the company will soon demand a multibillion-dollar government bailout.

Enbridge’s Westcoast Connector is the same story all over again, with even worse impacts for the climate. Environment Minister George Heyman should follow his own law — and let the project certificate expire.

Kai Nagata is the communications director for Dogwood, a B.C. non-profit dedicated to climate justice, Indigenous rights and democratic reform.

[Top photo: A proposed gas pipeline in B.C. would run through the Skeena watershed. Photo by Brian Huntington / Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition]