Trans Mountain project starting to look a lot like hapless Northern Gateway
The City of Vancouver is hopping mad. Not long ago, it submitted 597 questions for Kinder Morgan to answer about the Trans Mountain expansion. Only 49 per cent were answered. Score one for Vancouver.
And the City of Burnaby and its political brawler mayor, Derek Corrigan. And all the other opponents of the Trans Mountain project, including the West Coast alternative media, which licks its chops every time a juicy story like this one rolls around.
As I pointed out a month ago, the Christy Clark Government has no – read that as zippo, nadda, zilch – constitutional authority to stop the pipeline project. That authority belongs exclusively to the Canadian government and by extension the National Energy Board.
Since Canadian municipalities have no standing in the Canadian Constitution – they are “creatures of the Province” – neither Vancouver nor Burnaby has any constitutional authority to stop Trans Mountain, either. Nor can they use or pass bylaws to impede the project. Those would be struck down in a court of law, according to law professors Margot Young of UBC and Dwight Newman of the University of Saskatchewan, two constitutional scholars I have interviewed a number of times about this issue.
What Vancouver and Burnaby have is politics.
The Trans Mountain project already has support of only 29 per cent of Burnaby residents – compared to 63 per cent opposed – according to an Insight West poll. The numbers are a bit better for the province as a whole, but are still opposed.
Every percentage point that support drops makes it harder for Kinder Morgan to ever build the Trans Mountain expansion, which would increase shipment of Alberta crude oil to the Burnaby-based Westridge Terminal from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels a day.
Which is why Kinder Morgan needs to avoid opportunities for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to make public statements like today’s nugget from a press release:
“The continued lack of information from Kinder Morgan and their inability to adequately answer questions about their emergency management plans is a huge concern for residents and businesses in Vancouver and across the region,” said Robertson.
“The City continues to find very significant gaps in the information that Kinder Morgan has provided for a project that puts our environment and our economy at risk.”
The dominant narrative around Trans Mountain, just as it is for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, is that the risks from pipeline and tanker spills are far greater than the benefits that will accrue from jobs, business opportunities, and tax revenue.
Robertson and Corrigan take every opportunity to feed that narrative. Here are Corrigan’s comments on Kinder Morgan’s responses to Burnaby’s questions:
“In May of last year, we submitted 1,679 questions, 62 per cent of which Kinder Morgan chose not to answer and for which they gave only partial answers to 14 per cent,” said Corrigan.
“Because the city has very significant questions that focus on the hundreds of ways in which Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline and tank farm would threaten our city and region’s safety, security and livability, we again asked Kinder Morgan to provide answers. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – Kinder Morgan has again failed to show respect for our citizens’ questions by refusing to answer almost half.”
Is it any wonder Kinder Morgan is losing the public relations war?
The American energy giant isn’t alone in its PR incompetence. The industry in general does a terrible job communicating with stakeholders, which for a hundred years treated locals with disdain. Oil and pipeline companies were required to talk to governments, regulators (really, just more bureaucrats), and maybe some land owners.
Big Oil’s lobby and communications organization, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has a communications advisor for the West Coast. Has there been more communication with British Columbians of late? More information in the Vancouver media explaining the other side of the pipeline debate? Unfortunately, no.
[Disclosure: CAPP is a former advertiser in Beacon News and in 2014 I was contracted to write background notes about marine safety on the West Coast. During the six weeks of the contract I abstained from reporting or writing about energy topics.]
What can we expect from an industry dominated by engineers and accountants?
Enbridge’s Northern Gateway communications efforts will be taught in PR schools as a case study of how not to win social licence for multi-billion infrastructure projects.
Kinder Morgan claimed it was closely watching Enbridge and was determined to learn from that experience. If that is true, why fall back on the tired old refrain, We only have to provide what the regulator says we have to provide?
When I interviewed City of Vancouver deputy manager Sadhu Johnston a month ago about its questions for Kinder Morgan, he raised legitimate concerns about the City’s role in spill response and disaster management.
“Who decides when an area gets evacuated? Who decides how big that area is? How do we know what kind of vapours might be released? How toxic they are? And whether our first responders could go in the areas where that toxic cloud might be?” Johnston told me.
By not answering Vancouver and Burnaby’s questions, or convincingly explaining why it can’t, Kinder Morgan is making itself a piñata for its opponents, who will gleefully continue to beat it in the media and on social media.
The issue is not about regulatory process, it’s about the fight for the hearts and minds of British Columbia voters.
The whispers around the downtown towers of Calgary are that Northern Gateway is a dead project walking because of the political opposition of environmentalists, First Nations, and the Metro Vancouver municipalities.
Judging by the current tiff with Vancouver and Burnaby, Kinder Morgan is taking the same path. Probably with the same results.