by Marco Ovies, Features Editor

What is the Trans Mountain Expansion Project?

The Trans Mountain Pipeline is a pipeline built in 1953 that transports crude oil, semi-refined, and refined products from Alberta to BC. It is the one of the only pipelines in Canada that can carry both refined products and crude oil in batches. These different products can be either blended together or pumped individually, depending on what is requested by the shipper. These products can be broken down into four different product types.

Product Type Example Description
Refined petroleum Gasoline or diesel Refined
Synthetic crude Processed bitumen (asphalt) Semi-refined
Light crude Conventionally sourced crude oil Unrefined
Heavy crude Diluted bitumen Unrefined


According to the Trans Mountain Project Overview, The Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX)  is “essentially a twinning of this existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline between Strathcona county (near Edmonton), Alberta, and Burnaby, BC.” This new pipeline will be able to transport anywhere between 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of crude oil a day. 

The purpose of this expansion is to keep Canadian oil in Canada rather than transporting it to our neighbours in the United States. The Project Overview states, “Everyone will benefit [from the expansion]. Workers will benefit during the $12.6 billion construction project. Oil producers will earn more revenue for their product. Government will collect more tax revenue from oil. These revenues contribute to services that benefit all Canadians.” 

So what’s the big deal?


Danger to SFU Students and Burnaby Mountain Residents

First, any student who attends class on Burnaby Mountain should be concerned. In one of SFU president Joy Johnson’s statements, she said, “[T]here are significant safety concerns about risk of fire, release of toxic emissions, and potential blockage of the only evacuation route from SFU’s Burnaby campus in event of a fire and/or tank explosion at the tank farm.” 

A tank farm is where crude oils and refined products are distributed to local terminals. These terminals are the Parkland refinery and the Westridge Marine Terminal. Essentially, it is the end point of the pipeline and it is where these materials are stored until they are sent off. Currently, the tank farm on Burnaby Mountain has 13 tanks, and this expansion will add 14 new ones.

Once the tank farm expansion is complete, this will place the tanks only two hundred meters away from the Gaglardi Way/Burnaby Mountain Parkway intersection. It’s important to note that this intersection is the only vehicle emergency access and egress route for SFU Burnaby campus.  

This “expansion” of tank farms is really just squeezing in larger tanks between the already existing ones. This means that any existing buffer space that was built originally to prevent the spreading of a potential fire from one tank to another will be compromised. 

Additionally, what Johnson’s statement does not say is that this tank farm is located only 700m away from the SFU campus. The Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMEP): Evaluation of Risks to SFU written in 2016 states that “spilled or leaked product will flow downhill, and/or be absorbed into the ground, and will not have a direct effect on SFU which is at a higher elevation than the pipeline or tank farm.” However, the statement goes on to say that SFU could be affected by fires, explosions, or airborne emissions resulting from a leak or spill.

Meanwhile, the Burnaby Fire Department has also been concerned with the risks associated with the proposed pipeline and tank farm expansion. Their report concludes that “closer spacing between tanks on the post-expansion site would make it easier for fire to spread if human error or a natural disaster such as an earthquake set off a blaze.”


A Step Backwards in Fighting Climate Change

Canada will not be able to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement emissions target if we keep investing in industries with high emissions, which is exactly what the TMX pipeline is. In an open letter from the David Suzuki Foundation, they state that “expanding the pipeline and tripling the bitumen carried will increase carbon pollution from the oilsands, already Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions. It will also hinder progress in provinces that have invested billions to support pricing carbon pollution and shifting to clean energy.”

Additionally, pipelines can break, leak, and rupture. In 2007, there was an oil spill in Burnaby. This was just one of the 15 different spills that has happened in the last 15 years. While most residents were able to return within a day, others were not able to return to their homes for months

While Trans Mountain says that “no spill is acceptable,” there have been a reported 84 spills since the pipeline’s construction back in 1953 which is over a spill a year. It’s also important to note that this report has conveniently not been updated since May 2019. 


Impact on BC Indigenous Communities

Trans Mountain assures, “As a result of our Indigenous Engagement Program, we have received support from many Indigenous People along the Project corridor including Letters of Support from many Indigenous communities located close to the right-of-way and potentially impacted by the Project.” However, members of Indigenous communities around BC seem to disagree. 

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who are located around the Burrard Inlet where the pipeline terminates, discovered there was a “79% to 87% chance of a spill in their waters over the next 50 years if the project is built.” This level of risk is why they, and over two-thirds of Indigenous communities impacted by the TMX pipeline, are against the expansion and have not given Trans Mountain permission to build through their territory. 

In an interview with Kamloops This Week, Coldwater Chief Lee Spahan said his community near Merritt will “continue to push back against the planned route for the pipeline, which it says puts its aquifer at risk, the sole source of drinking water for the First Nation.”


BC Wildlife At Risk

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has already been put on halt because of the discovery of an Anna’s hummingbird nest — though this only applies to a 900m section of the proposed pipeline route where Trans Mountain was currently clear-cutting trees. These birds are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act along with other birds such as sparrows and woodpeckers.

While these tiny birds have made the news, another species that will be impacted are killer whales. Currently, the southern resident killer whales in BC are endangered while the northern ones are considered threatened. Additionally, many other marine mammals live in the Burrard Inlet. Not only will an oil spill be detrimental, but just the increase of underwater noise because of the increased tanker and tug traffic in the Burrard Inlet will have a major impact on these species.

These orcas rely on sonar to communicate and hunt for food, and this increase in underwater noise can disturb their senses. The increase in underwater noise will make it more difficult for these orcas to survive and fast-track them to extinction. Additionally, an oil spill in the Burrard Inlet would kill a large majority of the salmon population that make up a large portion of the orcas’ diet. 


The Big Deal

The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion will harm multiple communities and ecosystems. It is endangering already endangered species and also putting literal lives at risk. I’m not sure what other reasons you are looking for but at the end of the day, is benefitting our economy worth all of this risk?

Looking for what to do next? Check out Students Against TMX for updates on the TMX Pipeline and calls for action.

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