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Members of the Tulalip Tribe perform a ceremony to honor the waters and marine life along the banks of the Fraser River in Chilliwack, British Columbia, part of their traditional territory threatened by Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion. (Photo: Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

First Nations and Allies Vow to Fight Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval

Canada's National Energy Board recommended the federal government approve the controversial pipeline expansion, despite Indigenous opposition

Nika Knight Beauchamp

Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) announced late Thursday that it has found oil giant Kinder Morgan's planned expansion of a pipeline that transports tar sands oil to the British Columbia coast "in the public interest."

"The fishing grounds of the Salish Sea are the lifeblood of our peoples. We cannot sit idly by while these waters are threatened by reckless increases in oil tanker traffic and the increased risk of catastrophic oil spills."
—Mel Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Chairman

The NEB's stamp of approval now sends the proposal to the federal government for a final decision.

The outcry was swift.

"The Tulalip Tribes are extremely disappointed with the NEB's decision to recommend approval of the TransMountain Pipeline. We are facing the very real threat of an oil spill that puts the Salish Sea at risk," said Mel Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Chairman, in a statement from environmental law group Earthjustice.

Canadian First Nations, tribes in the U.S. Northwest, and allied environmental groups vowed to continue their years-long battle against the pipeline to save the West Coast's delicate coastal ecosystem and traditional Indigenous territory—particularly the threatened Salish Sea (pdf), through which oil and coal tankers travel and on which First Nations depend for sustenance fishing.

"The fishing grounds of the Salish Sea are the lifeblood of our peoples," Sheldon said. "We cannot sit idly by while these waters are threatened by reckless increases in oil tanker traffic and the increased risk of catastrophic oil spills."

The expansion will increase the capacity of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline to 890,000 barrels a day from 300,000 and "increase the number of tanker trips through the region from about 70 per year to more than 400, raising the prospect of major spills, as well as other social, economic, and environmental impacts," as Common Dreams has reported.

Deafening tanker traffic noise poses a severe threat to endangered killer whales that traverse the Salish Sea, notes BC-based endangered species advocacy group Raincoast.

The NEB's approval comes despite years of public outcry against the project, from the 2014 occupation of Burnaby Mountain that blocked the pipeline's path to this week's kayaktivist blockade against oil tankers in Vancouver's harbor.

"The NEB listened politely and then ignored the concerns of U.S. sovereign tribal nations. The recommendation is a slap in the face."
—Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice attorney
Staunch opposition emerged not only from Indigenous and environmental groups, but also government officials: 38 First Nations, 12 municipalities, and even the provincial government of British Columbia all spoke out against the pipeline expansion to the NEB during its review process, according to testimonies collected by environmental advocacy group Wilderness Committee.

Trans Mountain opponents condemned that review process, long perceived as flawed from the very start.

"This has been one of the most opaque and inadequate reviews of any major U.S. oil project, worse than the decision-making processes for Keystone XL, many oil export terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Outer Continental Shelf leases," said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth U.S.

"The NEB listened politely and then ignored the concerns of U.S. sovereign tribal nations," said Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles. "The recommendation is a slap in the face."

Others expressed resignation with a process widely seen as a sham: "Today's announcement is no surprise. The NEB has never said no to an oil pipeline," said Sven Biggs, pipeline campaigner for Stand, formerly ForestEthics.

Pipeline critics urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's liberal government to reject the Trans Mountain expansion. While Trudeau campaigned on promises to enact stricter reviews of the Trans Mountain project, his recent creation of a small additional review panel with no power to override the NEB decision left critics unsatisfied and pessimistic about his government's pipeline decisions.

"For 150 years we have felt the impacts of a pollution-based economy."
—Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribal Chairman

"The federal government is the final decision-maker on the Kinder Morgan pipeline and has the power to stop it from being built," noted a lawyer with the Canadian environmental law organization Ecojustice. "The only way it can truly deliver on the bold promises it's made to take action on climate change is to reject this pipeline."

The government is expected to release a decision no earlier December 2016.

"For 150 years we have felt the impacts of a pollution-based economy. It is time for us to turn the tides and make decisions that reflect the deteriorated state of the Salish Sea's health and resources," said Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribal Chairman, in Earthjustice's statement.

"We call on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to [...] hear the message from the First People," Cladoosby continued, "who have called this place home since time immemorial, the Coast Salish, to deny this project."

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