Trans Mountain expansion all but approved, despite indigenous opposition

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The federal Liberal government cleared another hurdle standing in the way of constructing the $7.4 billion expansion to the Trans Mountain pipeline system Friday, securing new regulatory approvals from the National Energy Board.

The court's ruling in 2018, which forced the National Energy Board to reconsider the issue, initially handed a victory to indigenous leaders and environmentalists who have pledged to do whatever is necessary to thwart the pipeline, including chaining themselves to construction equipment. With the NEB's assessment complete, the federal government's focus will be on consulting First Nations, which must be completed before the project can move ahead.

"They're prepared to consign the southern resident killer whales to oblivion". But the agency considers those risks justified "in light of the considerable benefits of the project and measures to minimize the effects".

Talking point: The board said the benefits-which include diversifying Canada's markets for oil and considerable revenues for government-outweigh environmental concerns.

The NEB is recommending the project be approved subject to 16 new recommendations, in addition to the 156 conditions it had proposed in its previous recommendation.

Among those recommendations: That the government implement a regional cumulative effects management plan for the Salish Sea, including targets to reduce underwater noise, strike/collision risk of vessels with marine species and key contaminant levels over time, create a marine bird monitoring and protection program, conduct a feasibility study for establishing a Southern Strait of Georgia National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, develop an offset program that addresses increased underwater noise and the increased strike risk posed for species at risk, and review and update federal marine shipping oil spill response requirements. The Canadian Court of Appeals last August ordered the board to reconsider its approval, because it had inadequately considered effects on killer whales, and had inadequately consulted with First Nations.

"While a credible worst-case spill from the project or a project-related marine vessel is not likely, if it were to occur the environmental effects would be significant", the NEB said. The NEB's work was thorough and should withstand potential challenges, he said. "It felt like another rigged process with a pre-determined outcome from the start".

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"We have to protect those killer whales but they don't know the difference between an oil tanker and a cargo ship and a cruise ship and it's really silly that we have a standard for the energy sector that is not applied anywhere else and we've seen that on Energy East, we've seen that on Bill C-69 and other policy decisions that are absolutely devastating our national economy", he said.

Despite the vows of continued opposition, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association President Chris Bloomer said he's confident the project will move forward.

In Ottawa, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi called the report an "important milestone for ... getting this project built the right way".

It will then be up to the federal cabinet to make a final decision.

Sven Biggs, climate campaigner for Stand.earth, predicted before the ruling that there will be more lawsuits and delays resulting from the board's support of the project. The gauntlet has been thrown down by the Trudeau government and the NEB and the fossil fuel industry.

"The Trans Mountain Pipeline is not in the public interest and will never be built", Berman said in a statement.

Rick More, CEO of the Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce, says he's feeling a lot more confident today that Trans Mountain will get built than before the latest report. But, Hartley added, building the pipeline is still the wrong decision.

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