Canada’s energy regulator endorsed a contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on Friday that would almost triple the flow of oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Coast.
The National Energy Board said the expansion is in the country’s national interest, but set out 16 new conditions after a court found it had not properly determined how killer whales would be affected by additional tanker traffic. The court also said there had been insufficient consultation with indigenous communities.
As oil flow increases from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, tanker traffic will balloon from about 60 vessels to more than 400 vessels annually.
But the regulator said Friday that the consequences generated by the traffic, such as injured whales and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, can be justified.
“The considerable benefits of the Project include increased access to diverse markets for Canadian oil; jobs created across Canada; the development of capacity of local and Indigenous individuals, communities and businesses; direct spending on pipeline materials in Canada; and considerable revenues to various levels of government,” the board said.
The expansion still faces stiff environmental and aboriginal opposition, although the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely expected to approve the expansion proposal for a second time.
The government bought the pipeline from Kinder Morgan last summer in a move widely seen as a bid to eliminate difficulties that would impede the expansion from taking place.
The pipeline would allow Canada to diversify oil markets and vastly increase exports to Asia, where it could command a higher price for oil. Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves, but 99 percent of its exports now go to refiners in the U.S., where limits on pipeline and refinery capacity mean Canadian oil sells at a discount.
Analysts have said China is eager to get access to Canada’s oil, but has largely given up hope that a pipeline to the Pacific Coast will be built.
The court’s ruling in 2018, which forced the National Energy Board to reconsider the issue, initially handed a victory to indigenous leaders and environmentalists who have pledged to do whatever is necessary to thwart the pipeline, including chaining themselves to construction equipment.
Many indigenous people see the 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) of new pipeline as a threat to their lands, echoing concerns raised by Native Americans about the Keystone XL project in the U.S.
Some say it also raises broader environmental concerns by enabling increased development of the carbon-heavy oil sands. Further legal action could be taken.
The board said Friday it will impose a total of 156 conditions on the project if it is approved, including measures to offset increased underwater noise and improve spill response actions.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called the endorsement a good step forward.
But Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band in British Columbia, said the decision is not a surprise considering the government owns the pipeline.
“It’s a complete conflict of interest,” Wilson said. “They have acknowledged they can justify harms to orcas or to our southern whale populations. Are they saying to First Nations that they can justify the harm to our lives?”
Vanessa Adams, a spokeswoman for Canada’s natural resource minister, said the government will make a decision once they have “adequately fulfilled its duty to consult.”
Tzeporah Berman, international program director at Stand.earth, said federal officials have stated on multiple occasions the pipeline will be built despite ongoing consultations with First Nations.
“The Trans Mountain Pipeline is not in the public interest and will never be built,” Berman said in a statement.
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee called the board’s endorsement “deeply irresponsible” considering that the board’s own analysis found the pipeline expansion would be detrimental to the survival of whales.
“While they may think this is in Canada’s best interests, this is not in the best interests of the people of Washington or of the world,” Inslee said in a statement. “The Washington State Department of Ecology has submitted concerns about the pipeline’s impact to our shared international waters. I continue to stand with them and urge the Canadian government to reconsider.”