Trans Mountain is a metaphor for larger economic and political forces at play - Salish Current
May 9, 2024
Trans Mountain is a metaphor for larger economic and political forces at play
Derek Moscato

With the “Golden Weld” in the Fraser Valley April 11 signifying completion, the Trans Mountain Expansion project began operations, with oil loaded in Edmonton, Alberta, scheduled to be received by tankers at Burnaby, British Columbia, in mid-May. (Trans Mountain Corporation, by permission)

May 9, 2024
Trans Mountain is a metaphor for larger economic and political forces at play
Derek Moscato


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: Pipeline’s completion points to Cascadia’s new era of globalization and ecological modernization

Oil is finally flowing through the expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline, marking a significant milestone for the petroleum industry in Canada. The energy project’s May 1 launch, ironically coming only days after Earth Week, generated great fanfare among politicians and business leaders north of the border. But for residents of the Cascadia region that sprawls across the B.C./Washington border, it should also be a point of long-term concern. That’s not solely due to the project’s immediate ecological ramifications, but also because the project serves as a metaphor for larger economic and political forces at play that are likely to affect this region’s cherished environment.

The symbolism of the pipeline’s completion was underscored by the April 11 celebration of a “Golden Weld,” located roughly halfway between the Fraser Valley cities of Chilliwack and Hope in the rugged terrain that lies about 35 miles north of Mount Baker. The fusing of this complex section of pipeline was a throwback to a similar rhetorical milestone for the original Trans Mountain pipeline in 1953, but also the “last spike” that marked the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in B.C. nearly 140 years ago. One media commentator noted that some members of Canada’s Liberal Party, drawing from this historic parallel, hailed the “Golden Weld” as a “triumph of Big Government.”

That much is undoubtedly true. According to a Trans Mountain news release, the government-owned project includes 620 miles of new pipeline, another 120 miles of reactivated pipeline, and three new oil tanker berths at the pipeline’s terminus in Burnaby, B.C. As the Salish Current’s Tom Banse reported recently, this tripling of crude transport from Alberta’s oil sands to the B.C. coast will result in more tanker traffic in the already stressed Salish Sea.

The Trans Mountain expansion therefore represents transformative developments that are going to influence the interplay between economic development and resources extraction locally and continent-wide. Notably this includes the behavior of government. That the Trans Mountain project was purchased by Canada’s federal government may come as a surprise to some, given the attention that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pays to issues such as climate change. And the pipeline project, according to Trans Mountain President and CEO Dawn Farrell, adhered to “the highest environmental, safety and social standards including respecting and working with local First Nations and Métis communities throughout the entire process.”

An earlier “Golden Weld,” in 1953, marked completion of the original pipeline. (Trans Mountain Corporation, by permission)

Yet the public sentiments of Farrell and Trudeau notwithstanding, the nationalization of the pipeline highlights its importance to Canada’s economy plus ramifications for Ottawa’s treasury. The pipeline also feeds into Canada’s Asia-Pacific Gateway Initiative that has emphasized growing offshore markets for Canadian exports, including petroleum.

This embrace of economic globalization aligns with another major shift to an ideology of ecological modernization. Whether it’s at the behest of managerial leadership, government policymakers, or Wall Street think tanks, global corporations are increasingly engaged in the green economy. Programs devoted to clean energy, carbon offsetting, or Environmental, Social, and Governance metrics point to greater corporate responsibility but also a ramping up of economic activity.

A local case in point is BP’s Cherry Point Refinery, which has been designated as a potential site for the production of green hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel.  BP’s facility could see a massive $1.5 billion investment that would make the Whatcom County site a future hub for green energy. These decarbonization aspirations are music to the ears of politicians, who are inclined to embrace the concurrent messages of carbon mitigation and good-paying jobs. But they do little to quell the concerns of citizens concerned with global energy production in the aggregate, or ecological impacts closer to home.

That hyperlocal dimension is another factor defining the challenges that lie ahead. The Pacific Northwest’s borderlands region is home to some of the largest industrial sites on the West Coast. They include Cherry Point’s oil refineries, but also north-of-the-border initiatives like Trans Mountain and the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 port expansion in Delta, B.C. Further east, B.C. mining enterprises like Copper Mountain and Elk Valley present ongoing ecological risks to the cross-border Columbia River watershed.

These examples speak to a troubling reality. Borderland regions have come under increased ecological pressure, owing in part to geography but also to political convenience. The echo-chambers generated by politicians, business pundits, and media on both sides of the border often fail to account for what’s happening on the other side of the 49th parallel. The unfortunate end-result is what can best be described as news shadows, in which environmental or social issues worthy of our collective attention are subsumed in the clutter of a bifurcated media ecosystem.

Given this dire picture, is there a promising way forward? The answer is yes, but it will require equal parts binational engagement, unprecedented journalistic attention, and long-term public participation. Otherwise, Trans Mountain is likely to mark the beginning of a new and confusing era for industrial expansion in Cascadia.

— By Derek Moscato

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