An alliance between opposition parties in British Columbia has offered new hope to opponents of a contentious Canadian pipeline expansion, and raises the prospect of a confrontation with Justin Trudeau, who has thrown his support behind the project.
After an inconclusive election in the province’s legislature earlier this month, the Green party – which won three seats – agreed this week to form a minority government with the leftwing New Democratic party, potentially putting an end to 16 years of rule by the Liberals.
A confidence vote is expected to take place this month, which could force Liberal premier Christy Clark to resign.
On Monday, Green party leader Andrew Weaver and NDP leader John Horgan pledged to “employ every tool available” to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
The proposal would expand an existing route to lay nearly 1,000km (620 miles) of new pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver’s coastline. Critics say that oil tanker and barge traffic in the region would increase by nearly seven times, increasing the chance of a catastrophic spill in the Salish sea, the network of inland waters that straddles the border with the US.
Weaver, a former climate scientist, told the Guardian that he and Horgan would put their weight behind groups mounting legal challenges to the Trans Mountain expansion, including First Nations groups who argue that the project violates their indigenous way of life.
Weaver said the minority government would also ensure that environmental conditions are met in full and said “science-based” assessments would be employed.
“We will no longer accept box-ticking exercises for submissions to environmental assessment authorities,” he said.
“This is about a pristine Salish sea being turned into shipping lanes for diluted bitumen.
We know that this stuff cannot be cleaned up because it sinks, so the fact we are shipping jobs offshore is one thing, but a product that has catastrophic environment consequences of a spill through our pristine coastal waters is just reckless.”
Trudeau approved the project in November, and BC Liberals support it, too, arguing that it will bolster the province’s economy and insisting that it was in line with the country’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
The $7.4bn project will pump enough crude oil to fill 890,000 barrels every day – a sharp increase from 300,000 – and export them to international markets.
The route extends from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, BC, adjacent to Vancouver.
But Trudeau has faced a chorus of opposition. Many indigenous and non-indigenous people believe the environmental risks outweigh any economic gains.
Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, located in and around the Vancouver area, is one of 12 indigenous groups to launch legal action against the project.
The group has worked hard to rehabilitate creeks to help salmon and clam beds affected by contamination, said spokeswoman Charlene Aleck: “Any type of industry on top of that would totally decimate that type of work.”
“Sixty percent of the population wanted a change,” said Aleck. “They wanted to see a different government in office, and a lot of that means opposing Kinder Morgan’s expansion.
It’s not just the pipeline. People are really looking for change away from fossil fuels and I’m happy we’re on that side of the equation.”
Chris Tollefson, the executive director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, said the agreement between the Green party and the NDP offers hope that the province will enter new period where sustainability and responsible government are upheld.
“When they say they’re going to fight the pipeline, what they’re really saying is they’re going to prevent this pipeline from being built until environmental assessments, until consultations with First Nations have occurred,” he said.
“The project represents a test, a challenge in terms of the rule of law, the resilience and effectiveness of our institutions of government to generate science, evidence, public participation in a way that allows us to make wise decisions about the future in the shadow of climate change.”