Q&A: Dogwood Initiative's Kai Nagata on the Fate of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

This is an interview between Max Fawcett, editor-in-chief of Vancouver Magazine, and Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director at the Dogwood Initiative. The interview originally appeared on Vancouver Magazine

Max Fawcett: What are your thoughts on B.C. saying no to Trans Mountain? Is that game, set, and match for the project?

Kai Nagata: It’s actually entirely consistent with what they said in 2013 about Enbridge, which is basically if you want to come and build a heavy oil project in B.C. you have to follow the campsite rule — you have to leave the province at least as well-off as you find it. It’s actually pretty hard for anyone who proposes to ship dilbit [diluted bitumen, the stuff that’s produced in the Alberta oil sands] to either convince the province that they can clean it up if it spills in the ocean or that it will deliver a financial reward with commensurate with that risk.

Based on those criteria, Trans Mountain and Enbridge are not that different in terms of the characteristics of their projects, so it’s not that surprising to see the environment minister [Mary Polak] say they haven’t met the five conditions.

MF: Do you think the proponents understand this yet, or do they think the province was — and is — bluffing with the conditions it’s laid down?

KN: That would be a question for the companies, I guess. But so far, the general pattern that we’ve seen from Kinder Morgan is that they don’t take the Canadian regulatory process overly seriously. In the conference call in December with investors, I believe Steve Kean actually referenced the province’s conditions and the progress that he believed they were making towards meeting them. 

The tone of that call would suggest that they didn’t really see the province as an obstacle. But the reality now is that, with the B.C. Liberals putting some clarity around their position, there’s no party left in B.C. that sees any political upside to supporting the project. It begs the question: if the B.C. Liberals, the B.C. Conservatives, the B.C. Greens and the B.C. NDP oppose this project, where does it leave the federal parties?

MF: Is this another win for you when it comes to resisting pipeline activity on the coast?

KN: It’s been an interesting few months. The basic principle behind our work is that we think decisions should be moved closer to the people who have to live with them. The current decision making process, and the current NEB review, really don’t make a lot of room for any kind of decisive or meaningful input from those people and those First Nations and communities along the path.

I think for the province to step up and assert its position kind of moves the needle a little bit towards the west coast and away from Ottawa. Overall, that’s a good thing. But I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag. The response by the federal government is really going to tell the tale of what this debate is going to look like over the next couple of years.

MF: That’s a lot of pressure on Justin Trudeau’s shoulders, given that he’s supported Trans Mountain in the past and said he’d support it if it met all of the relevant regulatory approvals. That puts him in an interesting box, doesn’t it?

KN: I’d say it puts him in the same box as the provincial government. In the statement today, they said they support in principle the idea of moving inland resources to international markets, and that’s what Trudeau has said in the past about Kinder Morgan. But it’s a question of how you do it, and how you get buy-in for a project like that.

I think we’ve seen a lot of examples recently of how to go about that very, very poorly. Trudeau, right now, is saddled with an NEB that was stacked by Stephen Harper on the way out, and it doesn’t allow the Liberals to make an appointment until 2020 — after the next election. He’s really got all the political cover he could ask for, in terms of bringing in a major shakeup at the energy board. But so far, the Liberals have held their fire.

Read the rest of this interview on Vancouver Magazine.