The Canadian government may soon have to deal with Seattle protesters against the Kinder Morgan pipeline project.
The Canadian government may soon have to deal with Seattle protesters against the Kinder Morgan pipeline project. PhenomArtLover/Getty

Last Friday, Canadian diplomats met with a coalition of Seattle environmentalists to discuss their concerns about a tar sands pipeline expansion that has roiled politics north of the border, and will increase tanker traffic in the shared Salish Sea.

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The Trans Mountain pipeline project, owned by Texas oil corporation Kinder Morgan, is set to triple its current oil-carrying capacity from the Albertan tar sands, which climate activists have been sounding the alarm about for years. (The new project would be bigger than Keystone XL project.) But Seattle environmentalists and indigenous activists also have a concern that is much more localized than the climate impacts of burning tar sands oil: the amount of heavy crude being transported throughout Puget Sound.

The project backers estimate that the project would add 348 tankers in the Salish Sea annually, and the Sightline Institute, a local environmental thinktank, believes that this would increase the risk of spills in local waters dramatically.

Canadian consuls told to local activists on Friday that they dispute the idea the project will increase the risk of damage to local waters. When Kinder Morgan announced one week ago that it would stop nonessential pipeline spending in the face of opposition from the local British Columbian government (and unmentioned First Nations activism), the federal Canadian government announced it would be looking at funding the pipeline itself.

Canada's support for a $6 billion pipeline that some First Nations have been vociferously opposing for years may seem out-of-step with the progressive, climate-conscious image that twinkly-eyed President Justin Trudeau has cultivated for his federal government. The Canadian government said the project went through a thorough consultation process with First Nations, but several First Nations on the pipeline route say they did not give their consent for the project to proceed.

On Friday, Canadian diplomats outlined why, exactly, their government supports the pipeline expansion—and highlighted America's climate hypocrisy in the process.

"The energy industry in Canada basically supports every hospital, every school, and has a positive impact on society," consul Robert Kerr told representatives from 350 Seattle, the Washington Environmental Council, the Sierra Club, and indigenous-led group Protectors of the Salish Sea. "Canada is a responsible producer of energy resources, but in order to fund the egalitarian system we have in Canada, resources is one way to get there."

In 2015, the Canadian government raised $12.9 billion in taxes on the energy industry.

Kerr told environmentalists, too, that Canada recognizes the world will not be dependent on fossil fuels forever, and sees itself as a leader in the transition to clean energy. Canada, unlike the United States, has signed onto the Paris climate agreement, which is supposed to decrease Canada's carbon footprint by 30 percent under 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Alberta has set a cap on tar sands extraction. And British Columbia implemented a carbon tax a decade ago.

Kerr pointed out that Washington State, despite the efforts of Governor Jay Inslee, has not yet been able to pass any kind of carbon tax or pricing scheme.

But climate activists in the US and Canada don't see the increased burning of tar sands oil as a means to an end. And while the Canadian government claims that the production of tar sands oil has been factored into its energy transition goals, recent reports to the UN show that Canada is short of its greenhouse gas reduction targets—and that the construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is expected to increase emissions even more.

Kerr, the consulate official, assured environmentalists that the Canadian government had invested in a $1.5 billion spill prevention and cleanup plan should something go awry with crude transportation. But there's little known about what happens to local ecosystems after a tar sands crude spill. Kinder Morgan claims that diluted bitumen—the oil sands product—floats. But a report from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that diluted bitumen spills pose unique threats to the marine environment, are difficult to clean up, and can sink.

The provincial government of British Columbia opposes the project, and activists in Canada have increasingly tried to shut down pipeline construction. Since mid-March, roughly 200 protesters have been arrested around Kinder Morgan work sites, according to Canadian officials.

In the meeting with Canadian diplomats, the Sierra Club's Victoria Leistman highlighted Seattle's "large activist base."

"The symbolic nature of the project would transcend all of the [climate] work that you're doing," Leistman said. "I'm afraid for Canada for what the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion means as a global leader in the climate fight."

Kerr, nevertheless, insisted that dissent, including the pipeline protests, was healthy for Canada's democratic institutions.

Paul Cheoteken Wagner, of the Vancouver Island Saanich First Nations and Protectors of the Salish Sea, implored Canadian diplomats to take a different view of the project.

"What kind of responsibility do you have to your children?" he asked. "Not as a member of a government or a patriot, but as a person, as a human being."

"Our indigenous people—you may no care about that because these governments have never cared about our people—indigenous people will die first," Wagner continued. "Poor people will die first."

While Canada claims the pipeline project supports its social safety net, Wagner said Canada was taking a short-sighted view.

"If we want a future for our children we're going to have to make tough choices," Wagner said.