Environmental History and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Proposal

Trans Mountain Burnaby Tank Farm. Source: By Derek K. Miller on Flickr
Trans Mountain Burnaby Tank Farm. Source: By Derek K. Miller on Flickr

The National Energy Board is currently considering a proposal to triple the capacity of the Trans Mountain Pipeline to 890,000 barrels per day (bpd). On Wednesday, May 27, 2015, the City of Vancouver published a series of expert reports on the pipeline expansion proposal and the Mayor, Gregor Robertson, announced that the evidence in these reports has led him to the following conclusion: “My mind is clearly made up. I think this is a bad deal for Vancouver.”

I wrote one of the fourteen expert reports. I was asked to provide expert evidence and analysis on the history of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. In particular, my report, “Historical Background Report: Trans Mountain Pipeline, 1947-2013,” addressed the following matters:

  • An overview of the original purpose of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the regulatory approvals and parliamentary oversight that existed at the time, providing a context for the development and construction of the original pipeline
  • A quantitative history of oil spills or other incidents relating to the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline
  • An overview of the evolution of pipeline regulation and reporting requirements applicable to the Trans Mountain Pipeline during its lifetime
  • An overview of the operation of the Trans Mountain pipeline
  • Analysis of the relationship between the pipeline operator and environmental concerns

I am pleased to be able to now share this report with the public. Readers can download a PDF copy of the report here. I think the findings in this report are important and necessary for assessing the risks associated with the transportation of large volumes of liquid hydrocarbon products and other hazardous materials. The report also makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Canadian energy history and the role of long-distance oil pipelines in facilitating a revolution in Canadian energy consumption patterns that took place after the end of the Second World War.

Here are some of the highlights from my report:

  • The original purpose of the pipeline was to create markets (both domestic and foreign) for newly discovered crude oil resources in Alberta following the discoveries at Leduc in 1947
  • The original pipeline approval process did not involve public consultation nor did it involve environmental assessment
  • From 1965 to 1975, US exports constituted a majority of total throughput of the pipeline
  • In 1972, the Trans Mountain pipeline reached its historic peak capacity of 381,871 barrels per day
  • Between 1961 and 2013, Trans Mountain reported 81 liquid hydrocarbon spill incidents to the NEB, an average annual rate of 1.53
  • Between 1961 and 2013, Trans Mountain reported the “uncontained spillage” of approximately 5,799,700 litres of liquid hydrocarbons
  • From 1961 to 1992, 0.01% of the total throughput of liquid hydrocarbons spilled from the Trans Mountain pipeline and its facilities; this constituted a total spill volume of 4,743,900 litres of liquid hydrocarbons released into the environment

Next week, I will present some of these findings and my research on the Interprovincial Pipeline at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association at University of Ottawa. I hope some readers will be able to attend that presentation on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at 1:30pm.

In the end, I was glad to have been asked to provide expert evidence and analysis as an environmental historian. It makes me wonder what other areas of environmental history research could be integrated into policy development and public debate.

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