Photo of a protestor from a rally against Kinder Morgan and the oil pipeline.

Editor’s note: The Peak recognizes Burnaby Mountain as unceded Coast Salish territory. However for simplicity we will refer to the land as Burnaby Mountain throughout this article.


On top of Burnaby Mountain, SFU could have been a shining example of the white tower of academia, looking down on the masses. It is physically separated from the world around it, and if it chose, it could keep to itself.

But over the past 50 years is the university has been a magnet for protests and controversy. Faculty and students have weighed in on issues that they care about, and regularly lend their voices to the causes that they believe in. For better or worse, SFU has become a place of engagement — but not necessarily in the sense that SFU marketing has pushed for.

The university can’t afford to remain quiet, no matter how much it wants to.

In November 2014, that kind of engagement reached a boiling point when SFU students, faculty, and concerned members of the public protested the work being done by Kinder Morgan crews on Burnaby Mountain. Kinder Morgan Canada owns the TransMountain pipeline system, which has pumped crude oil from Edmonton to Burnaby since 1953 and stores oil in a tank farm at the base of Burnaby Mountain.

The work was being done to assess a route for a new expansion to the pipeline that would add 980 km of new pipeline and almost triple its capacity to 890,000 barrels a day. Kinder Morgan claims that the project would bring in significant economic benefits to the province, but various groups have opposed its construction due to safety and environmental concerns.

Among those against are the City of Burnaby, the SFSS, the SFU Faculty Association, and SFU itself. Final arguments about the project were submitted to the National Energy Board earlier this year, and the National Energy Board (NEB) has until May 20 to make a recommendation to Governor in Council.

This story of SFU and the pipeline has taken many twists and turns, and has drawn an incredible breadth of communities into the controversy. But among all of the disagreement, posturing, and media frenzies, a theme separate from the pipeline itself has become clear: this issue is testing how SFU supports its community, and the rest of the province is watching.

The university can’t afford to remain quiet, no matter how much it wants to.

The Mountain

Even atop Burnaby Mountain, there wasn’t any real way that SFU could have ignored the pipeline completely. The original route of the new pipeline would have taken it through Burnaby streets, much like the existing one between the Burnaby Tank Farm and the Westridge Marine Terminal.

Neil Abramson of the SFU Faculty Association explained in an interview with The Peak that, as he understood it, Trans Mountain was “going to have to close one of the three major entrances to the university for a long period of time.”

Perhaps understating the situation slightly, TransMountain spokesperson Ali Hounsell explained that “one of the things we heard from community members who live in that area is that they would like us to consider alternatives.”

Whether Trans Mountain will be able to handle any potential spills remains a huge issue in approving the project.

Which is understandable, considering the damage that a spill in 2007 did when construction crews ruptured a relatively small pipeline buried under the street. The spill released 234,000 litres of oil onto houses, the street, and the Burrard Inlet. There has since been another spill at the Westridge terminal in 2009, but the oil didn’t make it directly into the Inlet.

Whether Trans Mountain will be able to handle any potential spills remains a huge issue in approving the project. The Province of British Columbia has called on Trans Mountain to have a “world-leading marine oil spill response,” in addition to four other conditions in order for it to consider the pipeline.

Hounsell acknowledged that Trans Mountain hasn’t yet met the conditions that the province has put forward, but that they are “confident and hopeful that we can do that in time to move forward with the project.” She offered that Trans Mountain has already received an award for working in “environmentally sensitive areas” when they completed an expansion in Jasper National Park in 2008.

The award was bestowed by the Alberta Emerald Foundation, an organization that boasts that it has “created a legacy of elevating the environmental achievements of our province, setting an example for all to follow.” Among its sponsors are the oil companies Enbridge, Shell, Syncrude, ConocoPhillips, ATCO Gas, Cenovus, and Suncor.

The specific route and environmental damage aside, there are still serious implications for SFU if the pipeline is built. The fact that there would be increased oil transport and an expansion to the Burnaby Tank Farm means that a spill or fire there would be more difficult to control, something that SFU has taken great issue with.

In an official statement to The Peak, SFU said that it is “concerned about the ability of Trans Mountain to respond to and resolve a major fire given the evidence provided by Burnaby’s Fire Department that they have neither the resources nor mandate to respond to a fire event at the Burnaby Mountain facility.” The Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) has voiced similar concerns, leading both organizations to become intervenors in the National Energy Board hearing process. So far, SFU states that it requires a more comprehensive risk assessment on the tank farm and it “is not willing to accept an increased risk to its community.”

The politics and the money

It’s clear that having a new pipeline installed near Burnaby Mountain is not without its hazards, but the process in of itself has another completely different kind of influence on SFU and the surrounding area. For one thing, Trans Mountain claims on its website that it will “maximize Aboriginal, local, and regional employment opportunities” for the project. Over the coming two years, it says that it will hire the equivalent of “37,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs per year” the pipeline is operational.

Trans Mountain has also taken other approaches to conferring a financial benefit to whichever communities participate in their project. The company has been giving money to cities like Hope, Kamloops, Merritt, and Abbotsford in order to “compensate for the disruption caused” by the construction of the pipeline. They’ve also offered money to post secondary institutions, with Kwantlen Polytechnic University accepting an offer in June 2015 for $300,000 to be given over 20 years, only if the pipeline is approved. In short order, KPU students vowed to refuse the scholarships that would be funded by that donation, and the Kwantlen First Nation’s opposition to the project eventually pushed KPU to withdraw from the agreement just months after signing it.

Thomson River University accepted an even bigger offer of $500,000 over 20 years, though some faculty are calling the move embarrassing.

Kinder Morgan has also been named in a list of oil companies that have given donations to the BC Liberal Party.

SFU hasn’t received money from TransMountain, but its faculty have given the project a lot of academic attention. In the earliest example, Kinder Morgan hired SFU’s John Clague and Doug Stead in 2014 to conduct a study on the route the pipeline may take through Burnaby Mountain or the streets. At around the same time, SFU’s School of Public Policy published a report on the economic costs and benefits of the pipeline expansion project, finding that  the pipeline might only provide a third of the jobs that it promises. The document concludes that “the pipeline project is not in the economic or public interests of the citizens of BC” and recommends that the decision-makers of BC “reject this pipeline.”

The next year, another study was published by SFU and the Living Oceans Society that found that Canada would incur a net cost of $4.1 to $22.1 billion if the new pipeline is built. The authors argue that the persistently low price of oil and the failure of the project to “provide any estimates of many of the potential economic, environmental, and social costs” causes the project to not meet the NEB criteria of being “clearly demonstrated to be needed” and “clearly found to be in the public interest.”

The vocal opposition

Throughout this development, there have also been intensely emotional moments. Concerned community members have endured personal risk to communicate just how seriously they oppose the project.

SFSS VP External Relations Kathleen Yang recalls that in November 2014, “there were so many SFU students that were camping on the mountain, [who] were actively taking a role in opposing the pipeline.” SFU faculty stepped up to the bar as well, with several members doing enough to get onto Kinder Morgan’s radar. Professors Steven Collis, Lynne Quarmby, and former professor Alan Dutton and others were the target of a multi-million dollar lawsuit for delaying the Trans Mountain pipeline. Quarmby was also later arrested with over 100 others for continuing to protest on the mountain after Kinder Morgan was granted an injunction.

In an official capacity, the SFU community has also been participating in the NEB hearings. The SFSS and GSS presented their final arguments in late January this year, with the SFSS later holding a rally outside. That Saturday, SFU students Mia Nissen and Amy Widmer were arrested along with UBC student Destiny Sharp for trying to enter the NEB hearing room. Hounsell said that she was unsure whether TransMountain knew students were arrested at the hearings.

SFU also continues to host events with an unapologetic anti-pipeline message. Only in the past month, a climate parade started at SFU Woodwards, Naomi Klein came to speak to the issues of climate change as part of the SFU Vancouver Public Speaker series, and the university hosted a “Carbon Talks” event in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation and the Centre for International Governance.

Working together as a community?

Over the past two years, the SFU community has struggled with the pipeline expansion project. In that time, it has become clear that many different groups have a variety of reasons for opposing the pipeline. They claim the economics are unsound, there are huge questions about safety, and the environment stands to lose big time if there is ever a spill, not to mention from the increased emissions from the tar sands. So with all of this put together, wouldn’t it make sense for SFU to engage with the SFSS, GSS, SFUFA, and other groups and students who want to get more involved?

On the other side, Trans Mountain certainly feels it has been doing its part to engage the public. Hounsell explained that SFU students “were certainly included in our invitations to the open houses and the various activities that we held since 2012.” As part of the decision-making process, Hounsell said that “sitting down with people and really trying to understand their concerns and questions is the best way to approach these things.” They also note that the “offer continues to be open to sit down and meet with” the public. To address the concerns with spill response, TransMountain held an emergency response exercise at the Westridge terminal which SFU participated in.

So it’s perplexing to see that while Trans Mountain has been spending a lot of energy meeting with people who violently disagree with them, SFU has remained relatively silent; it didn’t even present an oral argument to the NEB about the pipeline. SFU could be using its influence to help community members get over the challenges of becoming more involved.

SFU Faculty Association’s Neil Abramson told The Peak  that even though his association made a public statement and have asked SFU to divest from fossil fuels, he considers those to be “symbolic gestures that, in a way, are [a] very very low commitment” because they “don’t really impact the lives of the people.” For the most part, in his experience, people at SFU are averse to taking action that changes their livelihood, even when presented with an opportunity.

But students are also affected by the mountain of new responsibilities they have when they are studying. SFSS VP External Relations Kathleen Yang spoke to the fact that even though students do care, she feels “it’s been a longstanding systemic issue, where it can be really difficult to be ‘engaged’ at SFU because of all the things that students have to deal with in their lives.” In order to change that, Yang says “we need to look at starting to dismantle the structural barriers that are preventing students from getting involved and taking action on campus.”

When asked if they were contacted by SFU or TransMountain about their organization’s position against the pipeline, Yang and Abramson didn’t mince words.

Yang answered that the SFSS has not “received any correspondence from Trans Mountain or from the university.” Similarly, Abramson said that they haven’t been contacted by Trans Mountain and he “didn’t think [SFU] noticed” when the SFUFA made their statement. He also conceded that he doesn’t “think there’s ever been a gathering of the university organizations that are opposed to this pipeline.”

The role we need to play

This pipeline is about so much more than the oil it is going to carry. The controversy around it has found a way to impact institutions and cities across the Lower Mainland, and it’s clear that SFU will be inconvenienced and put at risk if it is built. All of this evidence and outcry, and SFU has not really helped its community take action.

Although the communities at SFU are incredibly diverse, and may disagree about which is the most important aspect of the pipeline project, the common themes binding them together are their opposition and their home institution. We have these various groups on campus, all pushing back against something they don’t want.

SFU has an opportunity to set an example to the rest of Canada.

But it seems like there is a vacuous gap left by SFU. It is spelled out in its strategic vision to be engaging students about civil understanding, and to develop healthier and more vibrant communities — where was that engagement? SFU has provided the infrastructure and academic freedom in order for students and faculty to express themselves, for sure, but it is reasonable to expect just a little bit more.

The university has a tremendous opportunity to set an example to the rest of Canada in the kind of engagement that it talks so much about. The West Coast has been demonized as pipeline-hating hippies who don’t care about the well-being of other provinces, but SFU could lend its voice and credibility to Burnaby’s side of the story. Whatever it does next, SFU needs to realize that so far, it’s been incredibly distant from its community. It has made some statements that might be genuine, but until it actively supports the group of people that is looking out for Burnaby Mountain, it won’t really influence what will happen next.