Pipeline limbo: Court halts Trans Mountain construction

Pipeline limbo: Court halts Trans Mountain construction

Canada's Federal Court of Appeal on Thursday halted the contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would almost triple the flow of oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast - a setback that comes just as the government is buying the project.

The ruling came within hours of Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. shareholders voting more than 99 per cent in favour of the sale of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion project to the federal government for $4.5 billion.

The ruling also exposes the federal government's shortcomings when it comes to meaningful dialogue with Indigenous peoples - despite Trudeau's oft-repeated promises to do better.

Premier John Horgan said this morning that the ruling vindicates the criticisms that the National Energy Board approval process was flawed because, in part, marine traffic was not adequately considered.

First Nations, including the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish on British Columbia's south coast, argued the federal government did not adequately consult them before the energy board review or the cabinet decision to approve the project.

Activists, lawyers and academics say the decision demonstrates environmental corners can not be cut when governments seek social license for major infrastructure projects - especially in a case where increased tanker traffic and vessel noise are known to be key threats to killer whales.

"This decision reinforces our belief that the Trans Mountain expansion project must not proceed and we tell the prime minister to start listening and put an end to this type of relationship".

But the court has determined that conclusion is bogus because it did not assess the impacts of marine shipping - increased tanker traffic that would result from the expanded pipeline - on the environment and southern resident killer whales in the waters around the line's shipping terminal.

The pipeline project faces stiff environmental opposition from British Columbia's provincial government and activists.

Regulatory lawyer Bill Gallagher, author of Resource Rulers and the upcoming book Resource Reckoning, said the ruling was a "benchmark" in the rise of what he called "Native empowerment" over natural resources in Canada, after the demise of the abandoned Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C. amidst protests and lawsuits. Morneau defended the purchase, describing it as a "sound investment", given that any private sector company would have found it hard to bear the risks involved with the project.

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In April, Horgan's government asked the B.C. Court of Appeal to decide if the province has the legal right to restrict the flow of bitumen by pipeline or rail.

In its initial study of the project, the NEB found that the pipeline would not cause significant adverse environmental impacts.

"Certainly it is something that will no longer be top of mind for British Columbians", he said.

It would also significantly increase the number of tankers in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, where Mayor Gregor Robertson said the decision validates concerns from the city. "Alberta has done everything right and we have been let down".

Ecojustice, the Living Oceans Society and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation called the ruling a "critical win" for the climate and coastal ecosystems.

Taylor said the pipeline and its associated infrastructure are likely to have impacts on many species, but because of the popularity of killer whales, they tend to act as a "flare" for numerous issues associated with the project. "They've committed billions of dollars in taxpayers' funds doubling down on a project that the courts have just quashed".

"The court has sent a clear signal that the rule of law will not accommodate environmental decision-making that fails to address these environmental risks", he said.

The North Shore Business Improvement Association took a slightly different tack, releasing a statement with a more positive take on the court's decision.

In a statement, Kinder Morgan said it is reviewing the court decision and assessing its next steps.

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