Two protests took place on March 10, 2018: the first against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and the second in support of it. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Deadline for cabinet to decide future of Trans Mountain expansion is today

International Trade Minister Jim Carr described the decision as ‘very significant’

The federal Liberal government is widely expected to give a second green light to the Trans Mountain expansion later today — but the start of construction on the politically volatile project is likely weeks or months away.

After a number of delays and false starts, the federal cabinet is again considering whether to approve the project, nine months after the Federal Court of Appeal shelved the original decision to allow the expansion to proceed. An official announcement isn’t expected until after stock markets close for the day.

READ MORE: Oil and gas sector cautious as deadline on Trans Mountain decision nears

International Trade Minister Jim Carr described the decision as “very significant.”

“It’s all about moving our resources to export markets, but doing it in a responsible and sustainable way in consultation with Indigenous communities and with an eye on environmental stewardship,” Carr said Monday.

“Those are the pillars we have been talking about and that we will honour and continue to honour.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said this morning

The government’s approval means nothing without a specific date when construction — halted last summer after the court decision — will resume, said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

“The question is when will it get built,” Scheer said in a statement. ”The Liberals still have absolutely no plan for construction.”

Trans Mountain Canada, the federal Crown corporation that now runs the pipeline and will oversee the expansion, said Monday that an updated construction schedule for the project won’t happen unless the government approves the project. Construction also won’t restart immediately, the firm acknowledged.

“There are regulatory and commercial steps that need to be completed before we can get shovels in the ground, including re-mobilizing the contractors, distributing required notifications and ensuring we’ve met all our pre-construction conditions.”

About one-third of the steel pipe needed to build the expansion has already arrived on sites in British Columbia and Alberta. That pipe had been ordered before the last delay, the company said, and is now secured on sites awaiting the next steps.

The government approved the expansion in 2016, but after the court decision last summer, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered the National Energy Board to look at the impacts more oil tankers will have on marine life. The government hired former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to oversee a new round of consultations with 117 affected Indigenous communities.

PHOTOS: Rival protests highlight B.C.’s divide over pipeline project

The court cited a failure on both those fronts as the reasons for overturning the original cabinet approval.

The government has been moving ever since the court decision last August, said Sohi, who blamed the former Conservative government for the delay.

“One of the reasons that project was stalled is that when the process of review was started in 2013 under Stephen Harper’s government, Conservatives failed to include the impact of marine shipping on the marine environment,” he said.

“We are changing that. We are engaging with Indigenous communities in the right way to move forward on the project.”

The project was mostly reviewed during the tenure of the former government. After the Liberals came to power in 2016, they extended the review period for the pipeline to undertake additional Indigenous consultations and asked the NEB to also look at the impact the pipeline would have on greenhouse gas emissions. It was still not enough to satisfy the court.

If cabinet approves the expansion again, it may impose some additional conditions on the pipeline to address the concerns of Indigenous communities, including possibly changing the route in some places. The NEB added 16 more conditions in February when it recommended approval after considering the impacts of marine shipping.

Ottawa is under intense pressure from the energy sector and the Alberta government to approve the pipeline. They argue existing pipelines are at capacity and the oil sands need more ways to get product to market. There is also pressure on the government because Ottawa bought the existing pipeline almost a year ago for $4.5 billion, when Kinder Morgan Canada investors got cold feet.

The company didn’t want to proceed after multiple court challenges from environment groups, Indigenous communities and in 2018, the newly elected NDP government in British Columbia. So Ottawa stepped in to kick-start the project, hoping to later sell it back to the private sector.

The court decision upended that plan.

Former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who kicked out of the Liberal caucus last winter after losing confidence in the government over the SNC-Lavalin affair, said in a blog post Monday that she doesn’t believe the project should go ahead, given the lack of trust in the government after all the problems in reviewing the expansion.

The existing pipeline was built more than 60 years ago and runs 1,150 kilometres between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. The expansion, first proposed seven years ago by Kinder Morgan Canada, seeks to build a second pipeline roughly parallel to the first. Eleven per cent of the route for the expansion requires new rights of way to be established.

Conservative House leader Candice Bergen is skeptical even with government approval that construction will ever begin.

“Over the last four years … the prime minister has done everything in his power to destroy jobs in Canada’s energy sectors,” Bergen said.

New Democrat MP Peter Julian said Monday he was expecting a “rubber stamp approval” of the project. The NDP, Green party Leader Elizabeth May and major Canadian environment lobby groups argue that the Liberals can’t approve the project if they have any real intention of meeting Canada’s climate change commitments.

Late Monday, the House of Commons approved a motion put forward by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna that was aimed at blunting that criticism. The motion, which declares climate change a “national emergency” that demands more cuts to carbon emissions than Canada has already committed to, passed the Commons despite the opposition of Conservative MPs.

McKenna says the government not only intends to meet existing commitments on emissions, but to exceed them in order to address the concerns of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which says more cuts are necessary around the world to keep the planet from overheating.

The National Energy Board in 2016 said the production of another 590,000 barrels of oil, which would maximize the twinned pipeline’s capacity, could generate 14-17 million more tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. That production could happen with or without the expansion, the board noted.

Canada’s current commitment under the Paris climate change accord is to cut emissions to 513 million tonnes annually. In 2017, the most recent year the measurement is available, emissions were 716 million tonnes. The Alberta oilsands accounted for about 70 million tonnes of that.

To meet the United Nations targets, Canada would have to get to closer to 385 million tonnes.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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