Vancouver City Council vs. Kinder Morgan: can you help?

Residents of Vancouver have a rare chance on Wednesday to set the tone for the coming conversation around the Kinder Morgan expansion. If you can make 5 minutes to speak on the record at City Hall, it would go a long way toward empowering our local representatives to stick to their guns and stop this thing.

On Monday the Texas-based energy giant finally filed its application to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline. We’re talking about 890,000 barrels of diluted bitumen, every single day, onto oil tankers and out through the Vancouver harbour. (Or, as the filmmaker Damien Gillis would say, “Port McMurray”.)

Wednesday at 9:30AM, Vancouver City Council is voting on a motion that would direct city staff to apply for intervenor status at the upcoming National Energy Board hearings. (That’s right, the same Joint Review Panel process that Enbridge went through last year with the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.) Intervenor status is a big deal: it would give the city the right to cross-examine witnesses, as well as a platform to represent citizens’ concerns all the way through the process. It would make the conversation very different from the one around Northern Gateway, because the City of Vancouver is clear where it stands on this project.

Wednesday’s motion contains some pretty refreshing language:

“THAT Council direct staff to apply for intervenor status for the City of Vancouver in the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the anticipated Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion proposal to advance the following points:

1. The expansion of the pipeline through the Metro Vancouver region and associated increases in tanker traffic pose an unacceptable risk to the City of Vancouver, residents and businesses including, but not limited to, risks to Vancouver and the region’s vibrant economy, local environment and parks, infrastructure, financial and legal liability, public health, and our international brand as one of the world’s most liveable cities.

2. The City of Vancouver does not agree with the NEB’s position that harms caused by the eventual combustion of the fossil fuels carried by the pipeline not be considered as part of the review of impacts on the public interest. Further that the City of Vancouver views an increase in the extraction of fossil fuels intended for combustion, and the increase in greenhouse gases associated with this extraction and combustion, as posing a direct risk to the city as a result of sea-level rise and extreme weather impacts associated with anthropogenic climate change.

3. The City of Vancouver has grave concerns on the following points:

  • that no appropriate emergency response plan is in place from appropriate provincial and federal government agencies; in fact capacity has been reduced in recent years;
  • that the City of Vancouver, its residents and businesses are not indemnified against all financial loss associated with a spill from current or proposed shipments;
  • that full recovery funding is not guaranteed for all affected parties; and
  • that Kinder Morgan and other responsible agencies have not invested in appropriate mitigation efforts to avoid a spill of current shipments.”

Again, when’s the last time you heard something like that from a level of government? With the motion going to a vote on Wednesday, I think we owe it to councillors to tell them — if this is the kind of language they’re going to use, they have our support as citizens. And if city staff are prepared to go to bat for us at the NEB, we’ll back them up all the way.

If you can speak for 5 minutes Wednesday morning, it’s easy to sign up: just call Lori Isfeld, City of Vancouver Meeting Coordinator, at — or e-mail .

As a backup, you can also send a letter to  and your message will be forwarded to them before the vote. However, nobody reads the letters aloud and they don’t form part of the public record. It’s probably more powerful to show up and tell your story.

Here’s the letter I sent today, in case I can’t make it Wednesday:

Dear Adriane, Andrea, Elizabeth, Geoff, George, Gregor, Heather, Kerry, Raymond, Tim and Tony:

Thank you for taking the time to consider a motion that would ask city staff to apply for intervenor status for the City of Vancouver in the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker terminal expansion. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explain why your decision on this motion is so important to me as a citizen of Vancouver.

My family has lived around Burrard Inlet and on the shores of the Salish Sea continuously since 1905. My great-grandfather Kumazo Nagata grew tomatoes and cucumbers on Mayne Island. My great-grandfather Asataro Yoshida was a fisherman and kept a small shop not far from the chambers where you now sit. His daughter Miyuki tells stories about rowing across Burrard Inlet for church picnics, back when the North Shore was carpeted in salal bushes and the water was so clear you could see crabs running on the bottom. My grandmother laughs about taking the streetcar home from English Bay with burlap sacks full of cockles and smelts, caught right there on the beach. She’s 90 now and lives in North Burnaby. (You’ll find her on your payroll records — she worked as a translator at City Hall.)

I grew up in East Van, and still live there. I took French at Hastings Elementary, played baseball next to the PNE, swam and picked blackberries at New Brighton. My friends and I still bike the seawall around Stanley Park, swim in English Bay, and watch the fireworks there in the summer. I still teach workshops at Templeton Secondary, my old high school. I bike to work from Commercial Drive to my office in Chinatown. And I’m writing to you from the kitchen table in the cottage my grandfather built on Mayne Island, just down the road from where he grew up. In fact, I can see the beach where I skipped rocks and chased crabs as a kid, and the wharf where my dad took me to fish. I’m 27 now. Is it naive to want to do the same things with my own kids one day?

You can probably guess why I’d mention each of these places by name. Depending on the location and size of a spill, as well as weather and currents, each could be placed at risk by the proposed project. Even areas not directly along the shore would be subject to off-gassing of solvents used to dilute bitumen for transport. It already makes me uneasy to know that a handful of tankers transit our busy harbour every month, carrying a proprietary blend of carcinogenic, flammable petroleum products. To ramp that up on the scale Kinder Morgan is suggesting only amplifies the probability of an accident.

Nowhere else on earth can I think of a city that’s been asked to take on this type and magnitude of risk. Partly that’s because the product to be shipped, diluted bitumen, was not considered a viable export commodity until recently. Partly that’s because most tanker ports are not situated in the heart of such a valuable residential area. As both city staff and the BC premier have made clear, our existing understanding of the dangers, and capacity to respond, are woefully inadequate. As it stands, an oil tanker leaving the Westridge terminal has approximately a 20-minute window during which the high tide buoys its hull enough to clear the sea floor under the Second Narrows rail bridge. Any disruption to that routine — whether due to human error, engine failure, bridge failure, tugboat failure, an earthquake, a terrorist attack — would start the clock ticking on a spill.

As far as I can tell, most of the monetary benefits of this project would accrue in Dallas and Calgary and Beijing, not Vancouver. Becoming an intervenor in the federal Joint Review Panel hearings would allow the city to ask some key questions: How would we be compensated, as residents and taxpayers, for shouldering this daily risk over the decades to come? Are the benefits of exporting raw bitumen so far-reaching as to offset lower property values or increased insurance premiums, even before a spill? How do we put a dollar value on the ecosystems these tankers would sail through, and the services they provide us already? What price should we place on the contradiction of the “World’s Greenest City” serving as a corridor for nearly a million barrels a day of the “world’s dirtiest oil”?

Let’s be plain: we’re being asked to risk our city’s tax base and global reputation — and the health of our communities — so that bitumen producers can get a slightly higher price for their product. We’re being asked to help load the atmosphere with all that carbon at a time when, as a city, we’re spending money, effort and political capital to reduce our per-capita emissions and adapt to climate change. This is a fundamental contradiction, one that threatens to overshadow and cancel out much of the work done so far by your administration.

Some people will tell you that this decision will be made by global markets and federal cabinet ministers — that municipal officials should keep their heads down and concentrate on playgrounds and trash collection. Unfortunately we saw in Lac-Mégantic this summer the consequences of leaving our safety in the hands of industry and federal regulators. Now that it’s our homes and livelihoods on the line, Vancouverites deserve full understanding of the project and a say in how it’s carried out — if at all.

The upcoming National Energy Board hearings will give the proponent the opportunity to demonstrate whether the benefits of this project outweigh the risks. Citizens and decision-makers will have months to debate those arguments on their merits. For now, all I’m asking is that you vote yes to a strong voice for Vancouver at that table.


Kai Nagata