View of the entrance to a TransMountain construction site
A TransMountain construction site entrance near Herrling Island, in the Rosedale area. The first sign reads: "Trans Mountain Property - Any person who obstructs access to this site is in breach of an injunction and may be subject to immediate arrest and prosecution." (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

All records are made to be bro­ken, but nev­er in wildest imag­i­na­tion could one imag­ine a North­west cost deba­cle threat­en­ing to exceed the over­runs, con­struc­tion hitch­es, con­trac­tor shake­ups and com­ple­tion delays that struck the Wash­ing­ton Pub­lic Pow­er Sup­ply System’s efforts to build five nuclear plants at once in the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s.

But WPPSS has met its match, per­haps its master.

The wool­ly mam­moth went extinct in North Amer­i­ca thou­sands of years ago, but a great white ele­phant is going to ground in British Columbia.

The Trans Moun­tain pipeline expan­sion was orig­i­nal­ly pegged at $5.4 bil­lion (Cana­di­an) when ini­tial­ly planned in 2013, with com­ple­tion planned for late 2017.

The project was mired in con­tro­ver­sy when pur­chased for $4.7 bil­lion by the Cana­di­an fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in 2018 but has since soared to $12.6 bil­lion (2020, $21.48 bil­lion (2022) and $30.9 bil­lion (2023). Its lat­est planned com­ple­tion date, set for late 2024, has encoun­tered a hitch in how the pipeline will cross Indige­nous ter­ri­to­ry and a lake east of Kamloops.

By con­trast, the WPPSS con­struc­tion pro­gram went from a $4.1 bil­lion orig­i­nal esti­mate, to $6.7 bil­lion first offi­cial esti­mate, and ulti­mate­ly $24.5 billion.

Four of the five par­tial­ly built nuclear com­plex­es sit for­lorn and aban­doned at Han­ford and Sat­sop. The one com­plet­ed project (the Colum­bia Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion) cost $3.2 bil­lion when com­plet­ed in 1984, twelve years after a red head­line in the Tri-City Her­ald announced: “$450 Mil­lion Nuclear Plant Started.”

Big con­struc­tion projects have big cost over­runs, as well as out­sized ratio­nales. WPPSS blamed chang­ing Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion reg­u­la­to­ry require­ments and the high cost of bor­row­ing mon­ey. A Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate inves­ti­ga­tion put a fin­ger on mis­man­age­ment. A then-wise Seat­tle City Coun­cil vot­ed not to buy into the ill-fat­ed WPPSS 4 and 5 reac­tors. Amidst con­struc­tion chaos, Mer­rill-Lynch tried to sell high-inter­est WPPSS bonds by pro­duc­ing cam­paign but­tons with the mes­sage: “I’m Bull­ish on the Sup­ply System.”

Trans Moun­tain ascribes fifty-five per­cent of its lat­est (2022–23) cost over­runs to such fac­tors as “engi­neer­ing and plan matu­ri­ty” as well as “sched­ule pres­sures and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty chal­lenges.” Robyn Allen, an inde­pen­dent econ­o­mist who has stud­ied the project, told Glob­al TV News: “What real­ly con­cerns me is that if they’re still doing design and engi­neer­ing plan­ning at this stage, they haven’t known what they were doing.”

Trans­Moun­tain, in turn, uses words famil­iar from the WPPSS days: “Some con­trac­tors’ work prod­uct did not per­form at pre­vi­ous­ly esti­mat­ed levels.”

Oth­er fac­tors include the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, require­ments of pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment, sat­is­fy­ing (some) Abo­rig­i­nal First Nations.

And, in Novem­ber of 2021, an enor­mous atmos­pher­ic riv­er pound­ed the Coqui­hal­la, Hope and Fras­er Val­ley sec­tions of the project.

Actions out­side its con­trol – COVID-19, extreme heat and wild­fires – have added $1.4 bil­lion to project costs, claims Trans Mountain.

The 1,150-kilometer pipeline is intend­ed to car­ry bitu­men crude oil, extract­ed from the tar sands of north­ern Alber­ta, from Edmon­ton down to the Westridge Marine Ter­mi­nal in Burn­a­by, just east of Van­cou­ver and just below Burn­a­by Moun­tain atop which sits Simon Fras­er University.

It fol­lows the path of an exist­ing pipeline, built in the 1950’s, and will boost capac­i­ty to 890,000 bar­rels a day.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has pur­sued a pol­i­cy one ana­lyst describes as “pipelines and wind tur­bines,” mov­ing to cap car­bon emis­sions while cham­pi­oning a key piece of the car­bon econ­o­my. The pipeline is intend­ed to bring oil to a salt­wa­ter port where it can be export­ed to Asia and the U.S. West Coast.

As Trudeau vows to cut car­bon emis­sions, he says Trans Moun­tain will devel­op “a mar­ket for our nat­ur­al resources.”

In the PM’s words, “Access to world mar­kets for Cana­di­an resources is a core nation­al inter­est. The Trans Moun­tain expan­sion will be built.”

But there are severe poten­tial pains to go with the gains. Traf­fic, in and out of the Burn­a­by oil port, will go from six­ty tankers a year to four hun­dred. The tankers will tra­verse Bur­rard Inlet, Haro Strait – which sep­a­rates the San Juan Islands from British Columbia’s Gulf Islands – and head out the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The route through sen­si­tive marine waters pass­es nation­al, provin­cial and state park­lands. The entrance to the Strait is flanked by our Olympic Nation­al Park and Canada’s Pacif­ic Rim Nation­al Park. Oil spills have occurred there.

The Cana­di­an Coast Guard has been slug­gish and inept in its response. (An excel­lent view of the tanker route can be had from Deer Park in the Olympics.)

Expan­sion was the idea of the Hous­ton-based own­er of the pipeline.

In words of Cana­di­an envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist Blair King, “When Kinder Mor­gan pro­posed the pipeline, it had sim­ple plans. Build a pipeline for $4.6 billion-$7 bil­lion and then sell space (tolls) on the pipeline at a price that allowed it to recoup its costs plus gen­er­at­ing prof­it for its shareholders.”

That was then. The expan­sion gen­er­at­ed an envi­ron­men­tal uproar.

Sit-ins and encamp­ments took out­side the Burn­a­by ter­mi­nal. Two mem­bers of the House of Com­mons, Green Par­ty leader Eliz­a­beth May and future Van­cou­ver May­or Kennedy Stew­art, were arrest­ed. So was tele­vi­sion host and famous envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist David Suzu­ki, along­side his envi­ron­men­tal­ist-snow­board­er grand­son Tamo Cam­pos. The arrests were lat­er thrown out.

The pipeline “will nev­er be built,” vowed Stew­art Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of British Colum­bia Indi­an Chiefs. Added Ian Camp­bell, Squamish Indi­an chief: “For us, we inher­it the major­i­ty of risk because this is where the pipeline is.”

Kinder Mor­gan threat­ened to bail, say­ing it was held up by protests and shift­ing gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. At that point, Trudeau stepped in.

Alber­ta is the cen­ter of Canada’s “oil patch” and its holy grail is get­ting oil to a salt­wa­ter port from which it can be export­ed. The Oba­ma and Biden admin­is­tra­tions have put the kibosh on the Gulf-bound Key­stone XL pipeline.

When his gov­ern­ment took office in 2017, British Colum­bia Pre­mier John Hor­gan vowed to use “every tool in our tool­box” to stop the pipeline.

Join­ing him, and warn­ing about oil spills, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee said Wash­ing­ton would “do every­thing we can under Cana­di­an law” to fight the project, adding: “This does not move us toward a clean ener­gy future.”

A Cana­di­an appeals court flagged Trans Moun­tain for not ade­quate­ly engag­ing with Abo­rig­i­nal First Nations and not assess­ing impacts increased tanker traf­fic would have on orca whales. Ulti­mate­ly, in June of 2020, the Supreme Court of Cana­da turned aside chal­lenges from both British Colum­bia and Indige­nous groups. Sup­port for the pipeline expan­sion came not just from Alber­ta, but as a job gen­er­a­tor in inte­ri­or B.C.: It cur­rent­ly employs 13,500 people.

The pipeline expan­sion route is no flat­land dig.

It pass­es through the Cana­di­an Rock­ies, runs down the Thomp­son Riv­er past Kam­loops, plows through provin­cial parks and cross­es anoth­er moun­tain range until reach­ing hope, then runs down the Fras­er Val­ley and cross­es under the Fras­er Riv­er. A recent cost­ly hitch has developed.

At this late hour – it claims the project is eighty per­cent com­plete – Trans Moun­tain wants Cana­di­an ener­gy reg­u­la­tors for approval for yet anoth­er change in con­struc­tion meth­ods and route. It was going to use a least-dis­rup­tive plan in pass­ing through Jacko Lake east of Kam­loops, with micro-tun­nel­ing and tak­ing the pipeline under the lake. Now, how­ev­er, Trans­Moun­tain wants a more dis­rup­tive and direct route through Indige­nous lands.

Known, too, as Pipsell Lake, Jacko Lake is renowned for trout fish­ing, home to or vis­it­ed by 130 species of birds, 40 species of mam­mals and rat­tlesnakes. Human arti­facts dat­ing back 7,000 years have been found at the lake.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the lake is a source of “his­toric, cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion” to Indige­nous peoples.

“There is no amount of mon­ey that Cana­da has, that can replace a site that’s sacred,” said Ray­mond Car­di­nal of a group called SS1 First Nations.

The row over Jacko Lake is expect­ed to jack up costs even fur­ther and may jeop­ar­dize next year’s com­ple­tion schedule.

“Megapro­jects” are a part of Canada’s devel­op­ment psy­che. Some have proven vision­ary, such as the big James Bay hydro project in Quebec.

Oth­ers have become fias­cos, such as British Columbia’s attempt to build fast fer­ries, or B.C.’s $16 bil­lion Site C dam project on the Peace Riv­er, whose costs have more than dou­bled. Site C and Trans Moun­tain are com­pet­ing for work­ers, cre­at­ing a labor shortage.

Noth­ing to see here, and tax­pay­ers won’t get hit with the bill, or so claims Canada’s fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. “Trans Moun­tain will secure nec­es­sary fund­ing to com­plete the project through third par­ty financ­ing, either the pub­lic debt mar­ket or with finan­cial insti­tu­tions, Finance Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land told parliament.

Trans Moun­tain is bull­ish on mar­kets once the pipeline is built: “As coun­tries begin to devel­op the same qual­i­ty of life we enjoy here in Cana­da, they need to secure sources of ener­gy.” At the expense of the plan­et? But Robyn Allen, for­mer chair of the Insur­ance Cor­po­ra­tion of British Colum­bia, argues the pipeline is “not com­mer­cial­ly viable,” adding: “This is a huge tax­pay­er bur­den that we’re facing.”

Nobody has defend­ed the pipeline project more vocal­ly than Richard Mas­son, chair­man of the World Petro­le­um Con­gress in Cana­da. “Hav­ing anoth­er source of Cana­di­an oil is a big deal,” he said recent­ly, but went on to con­cede: “So it’s real­ly cost­ing more than any­one would have dreamed at the beginning.”

The Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment says it wants to even­tu­al­ly get out of the pipeline busi­ness and sell the com­plet­ed Trans­Moun­tain pipeline.

Mas­son has some bad news: “If the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is going to want to sell this, they’re going to have to take a write-down and sell it at a much reduced val­ue com­pared to what has been spent so far.”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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