By R. Bruce Striegler

While the public and the national media have been focused on the controversy over the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Expansion, another, quite different, proposal has been gaining considerable attention. A venture lead by noted B.C. First Nations writer and entrepreneur Calvin Helin, is proposing a $16 billion project to carry Alberta oil to tidewater in British Columbia. Five years ago, Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., began investigating the notion of creating the Eagle Spirit energy corridor, whose concept is to move Alberta bitumen, B.C. natural gas and B.C. hydroelectricity along a route from Alberta to northwestern B.C. terminating near Prince Rupert. The acrimony over the Kinder Morgan expansion has brought the focus of their idea directly onto the oil pipeline portion of the plan.

Although details still are light, according to published reports, the plan is to have the pipeline carry one million barrels of Alberta oil a day – about 100,000 barrels greater than the capacity of the approved but not yet built expanded Kinder Morgan pieline – to a site once considered a potential terminal for LNG exports near Prince Rupert. Helin has expressed the view that the northern Grassy Point terminal site is a better choice than the Kinder Morgan Burnaby terminal, situated along the southern shore of the highly populated Burrard Inlet. Helin says Grassy Point’s deep-water site would be capable of handling tankers called very large crude carriers, which are well suited for oil exports to Asia.

This contrasts with the southern Kinder Morgan site, which would be less efficient, since smaller tankers designated Aframax class, will be required to navigate under two high-traffic bridges and through the shallower and busier waters of Vancouver’s Port of Vancouver, making potential Asian shipments less economic. In a May 2018 article in the Globe & Mail, Mr. Helin is quoted as saying that the roots of the impasse over Kinder Morgan’s project can be traced back 40 years, to a comprehensive 1978 study by the federal government. It concluded that Grassy Point would be the best export location in British Columbia, with much better ratings than Burrard Inlet in categories such as cleanup potential in the event of an oil spill.

Environmental concerns over CO2 and oil spills

It’s ironic that environmentalists, several Greater Vancouver mayors and municipalities, the B.C. Government and other Kinder Morgan opponents have raised concerns over the amount of CO2 from added oil sands production enabled by the pipeline, while tonnes of U.S.-mined thermal coal are exported from terminals at the port of Vancouver, without any questions being asked about the CO2 levels (not to mention sulphur emissions) caused by combustion of this fuel. Vancouver remains North America’s largest exporter of coal, with 2017 volumes reported by the Port showing B.C. metallurgical coal volumes of 12.3 million metric tonnes, and thermal coal volumes increasing 43 percent over the last year. The largest coal terminal, Westshore Terminals, loaded 29 million tonnes of coal in 2017, nearly triple the combined coal exports of the entire U.S. West Coast. Vancouver’s coal terminals have also accommodated a massive increase in exports of thermal coal, which is used for the production of electricity, and much of which originates from the U.S. Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming.

After 64 years, during which the TransMountain pipeline has been delivering oil to the Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, there has never been a spill, and despite the fact that for nearly 50 years, tankers transit the B.C. coast daily from the State of Washington to Alaska with no incidents, opposition to oil tankers remains high. Recent B.C. spills do include a fuel system rupture of the freighter Marathassa in Vancouver’s English Bay in 2015, leaking nearly 3,000 litres of bunker fuel. In 2016, the tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and sank, contaminating the waters of British Columbia’s Central Coast with more than 100,000 litres of fuel.

With Imperial Oil’s refinery at Port Moody long dismantled, the last remaining source of refined fuels in southern B.C., owned by Parkland Fuel Corp., is near the Trans Mountain Burnaby terminal. Parkland, a Red Deer-based company that also owns Columbia Fuels on Vancouver Island, acquired the Burnaby refinery from Chevron in April 2017. The $1.5 billion purchase included more than 100 Chevron-branded filling stations in B.C., marine fuelling stations and an aviation fuels business supplying Vancouver International Airport. Trans Mountain, one of few pipelines in North America used for shipping refined fuels and crude oil in batches, also supplies the Parkland refinery.

Conflict over pipelines and tanker bans splits First Nations

A new dynamic is emerging in oil pipeline politics – First Nations disagreeing with First Nations, but the Eagle Spirit project claims its proposal has the support of 95 per cent of First Nations along the route. With numerous court actions underway, opposing Kinder Morgan and opposing the federal tanker ban, it illustrates the difficulty in obtaining “social licence”, a test increasingly demanded by First Nations, but tough to meet given the different interests of the 634 recognized First Nations in the country. According to Trans Mountain, of the more than 133 Aboriginal communities and groups with an interest in their pipeline or interests potentially affected by it, 43 have signed benefit agreements. Thirty-three of those groups are in B.C.

While billions of dollars will have to be raised from a wide range of sources, the Eagle Spirit group has the early backing of the Aquilini Group, owner of the NHL Vancouver Canucks and a major real-estate developer in Vancouver. Mr. Helin says he has secured Indigenous consent along Eagle Spirit’s northern route from Alberta to British Columbia and, crucially, approval from the Lax Kw’alaams Band – where Helin’s brother is mayor – at the proposed export terminal site at Grassy Point. By contrast, the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations oppose Trans Mountain’s expansion plans for the Burnaby terminal on their traditional land along Burrard Inlet in the Vancouver region.

Months after participating in a GoFundMe campaign to challenge the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, the Lax Kw’alaams Indian Band has officially taken the provincial and federal governments to court. The court documents reportedly state that the nine tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, represented by its mayor John Helin, claim Aboriginal title and rights over a section of land north of Prince Rupert including Dundas Island, Grassy Point, Lax Kw’alaams, the Nasoga Gulf, the Khutzeymateen Inlet and the Nass River. The claim further states that in pursuing the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, otherwise known as Bill C-48, the federal government “discriminates against the plaintiffs by prohibiting the development of land in the claim area, being an area that has one of the best deep-water ports and safest waterways in Canada.” The Lax Kw’alaams Band made headlines in the spring of 2015 when the vast majority of its members voted against exports of liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island by Pacific NorthWest LNG. By the summer of 2016, many members changed their minds, but Pacific NorthWest LNG cancelled the project last year.

Quoted in published news reports, Tim McMillan, President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says, “We see a lot of First Nations supporting the northern project that Calvin and his team are moving forward,” Oil producers Cenovus Energy Inc., MEG Energy Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. have expressed interest in signing up for capacity on Eagle Spirit, while AltaCorp Capital Inc. has been tapped as a financial adviser. Helin said that if the only hurdle remains the tanker ban, Eagle Spirit will re-locate its export terminal from the big natural harbour at Grassy Point to Hyder, Alaska. The state of Alaska, unlike the province of British Columbia has already said it would welcome the project.