Charlene Aleck, an elected councilor of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, stands on the rocky beach of an inlet in British Columbia where flat waters are surrounded by hills, covered with evergreens.
These are the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s ancestral lands. Their name means ‘people of the inlet’ and their creation story is about these waters, just east of Vancouver; they have inhabited this place for thousands of years.
A bright red ship floats next to two giant storage tanks at an oil terminal on the other shore. The Trans Mountain Pipeline ends here, filled with oil from the landlocked Alberta Tar Sands, 700 miles away. Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based company which runs the pipeline, is planning to expand it, increasing its capacity threefold.
The expansion would mean many more oil tankers moving through these waters, waters the Tsleil-Waututh harvested until the 20th century, when industrial pollution made it impossible.
“The concerns are the pipeline expansion terminates right — I don’t say in our backyard, I say in our kitchen…it’s not if a spill happens, it’s when it happens,” Aleck says.
At first contact with Europeans, this community was decimated by small pox and at one point dwindled to a handful of members, though their population was able to recover some. When the original oil pipeline was built in the 1950s, First Nations had no say in how the land was used.
“It was against the law for First Nations to speak to a lawyer, to speak our language, to practice our culture,” says Reuben George, another Tsleil-Waututh leader.
That has changed. Now, they are actively trying to stop the pipeline expansion, partnering with environmental groups and taking the project to court. The Tseil Waututh is not anti-development and profit from real estate development on their land. But they are against fossil fuels and they’ve joined a lawsuit with other First Nations on the grounds that they weren’t meaningfully consulted about the pipeline. Kinder Morgan says it made good-faith efforts to work with the first nation.
But the Tsleil-Waututh is not the only group opposed to the expansion, local and regional governments are also speaking out against it. They say they are assuming the all the risks of the project while the province of Alberta gets the financial benefit.
There is a bigger picture here though, according to Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Jim Carr.
“99% of our oil exports are to the US. We like you, we like you a lot, but we want to be liked by others around the world And the Trans Mountain expansion will open up that market,” says Carr.
The federal government in Ottowa says the pipeline expansion is important for all of Canada. The oil from the expanded pipeline will be destined for Asia, where it will fetch a higher price. And there are estimates the project will create more than 15,000 jobs. One of the companies that may see a boost is Mott Electric in Burnaby, British Columbia. The company employs 450 people and has worked before with Kinder Morgan. They plan to bid on electrical contracts if the project goes through, and General Manager Graham Trafford says the 60-100 electricians they would hire would be a boon for the economy.
“They’re going to spend money in the communities they’re in, they’re going to be paying taxes to [British Columbia] government and the federal government. And…It’s a high level project for electrical apprentices to learn on. I don’t think you can measure the value of something like that,” Trafford says.
Trafford explains that he would love to say that the world no longer relies on oil, but that’s just not the way things are.
“Buses, trains, we need petroleum to build them. We have electric vehicles for staff, we’re trying from our point of view to be good corporate citizens but…it takes petroleum products to build them,” Trafford says.
But it is not only Canada that has a stake in this project. When the tankers fill up in the small inlet near Vancouver, they will travel to the Pacific Ocean through a body of water that is shared with the United States, the Salish Sea. The Sea forms some of Washington state’s coastline, and there are looking north with concern.
Twenty miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, along the Salish Sea, is the reservation of the Lummi Nation. Jay Julius, an elected councilmember for the Lummi, says that more oil tankers travelling through the area will increase the likelihood of a spill.
“A pipeline leak and oil spill knows nothing about boundaries it has no idea when it’s entering or about to leave a reservation,” Julius says. The Lummi make their living from the sea; Julius says an oil spill would devastate their economy and their way of life.
“We have hatcheries, aquaculture…we hunt these waters. It feeds our families in the winter, it feeds our longhouses, our smokehouses, our ceremonial needs,” Julius says.
Canada’s government says it has put 1.5 billion dollars towards oil spill response training and equipment. But Washington State governor Jay Inslee says it’s not enough.
“I am appreciative of Prime Minister Trudeau’s efforts to boost the oil spill recovery capacity. That’s a good thing,” Inslee says, “But the fact of the matter is, there’s no power on earth can save you from devastation from oil spill.”
Both the Lummi and the state of Washington are on the sidelines of this fight, though. The First Nations in Canada are the ones who are best positioned to stop the project from going forward. They say they feel optimistic because in recent years many oil, gas, mineral and coal projects have been blocked in court cases brought by indigenous groups.
Kinder Morgan says it is behind schedule but is committed to the TransMoutain pipeline expansion.