This article appears here and in The Guardian as part of Canada's National Observer's collaboration with Floodlight.

Nestled in the harbours of Vancouver, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has lived for thousands of years within an inlet set against the mountain views of the Pacific Northwest.

But across the water from Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s reserve, less than two kilometres away, is a jarring juxtaposition: an industrial terminal for the massive Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

Oil tankers have frequented the terminal weekly for years, and now it is being enlarged so Trans Mountain can triple the amount of oil it transports from the landlocked oilsands of Alberta to the West Coast.

Traffic will increase by seven-fold — bringing in up to 34 giant oil tankers per month and three barges, the Canadian government-owned company has forecasted.

In traditional ceremonies on the water, the supertankers already dwarf the Tsleil-Waututh’s cedar strip canoes, said Charlene Aleck, the spokesperson for the Sacred Trust Initiative, which is trying to stop the expansion.

“It is that look of a David-and-Goliath fight,” Aleck said.

Last week, opponents of the project suffered a major setback in that struggle. In an expanding front of the climate movement, the initiative and allied environmental organizations have been targeting the insurers and other financial institutions that make pipelines and other fossil fuel projects possible, ramping up public pressure on the companies.

But in response, Canadian regulators are agreeing to a request from Trans Mountain to keep the names of its insurers secret.

Insurers that make fossil fuel projects possible are being singled out. Regulators are helping them stay secret. Are they causing the disasters they're insuring against? @ottawacarl reports with @emilyhholden of @floodlightnews.

Nor are they alone. California officials have similarly declined to require insurers to disclose their fossil fuel investments and the projects they underwrite. In Connecticut — a U.S. insurance hub — one lawmaker is trying to make the industry reveal its fossil fuel investments and the premiums they charge companies.

The Biden administration is also strategizing about requiring companies to be more transparent about the risks they face from climate change, as extreme weather intensifies and disrupts economies.

Carmen Balber, the California-based executive director of Consumer Watchdog, said insurers helping the fossil fuel industry are working against their own interests and will ultimately leave the public to clean up the mess.

“What if doctors offered cigarettes in their waiting rooms… What if firefighters were giving out matches and flame throwers?” Balber said. “It does not make sense for the insurance industry to be causing the very disasters that they’re insuring against.”

Pressure campaigns against fossil fuel insurers have become a critical strategy in the international environmental movement.

“Basically, without insurance, there’s no project approval, there’s no project financing,” said Ross Hammond, a senior insurance strategist with the Sunrise Project.

Hammond said until about four years ago insurers were considered to be enlightened about climate risks. They were among the first to ring alarm bells about the crisis in the 1970s.

“The problem is, what that doesn’t include is the other side of the equation… like what are the insurers themselves doing to make the problem worse?” Hammond said.

In California, in 2019, watchdog groups tried and failed to get the state’s insurance department to require insurers to disclose which fossil fuel projects they back.

Now, public advocates have their sights on Connecticut, where many insurers are based. A lawmaker there has proposed requiring insurers to disclose the premiums they charge on fossil fuel projects — so the public has an idea of how risky they are. The bill was approved by a state senate committee with a bipartisan vote.

The Biden administration has also signalled that its Treasury Department could require certain climate disclosures from the finance sector. An upcoming order from the White House is expected to require the Federal Insurance Office to study climate disclosures as well.

The Trans Mountain pipeline, which the Canadian government bought in 2018, stretches 1,150 kilometres, or more than 700 miles, from Edmonton to Vancouver, just above the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Its expansion is meant to increase oil exports to Asia.

The Trudeau administration has faced intense political pressure over the project, which it acquired after Kinder Morgan threatened to walk away amid opposition from British Columbia. It has spent billions of public dollars buying and operating the pipeline, despite its stated climate commitments.

The type of oil from Western Canada — mostly heavy crude, with high amounts of sulphur — is more complicated and expensive to refine than other types of oil.

Trans Mountain has cited opposition from environmental advocates as one of the reasons it wants to keep insurers secret. But activists point to a string of other difficulties the project has faced that could be making it harder to get insurance.

Robyn Allan, an economist and former president of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia who is an expert in underwriting, said if the company was having difficulty getting coverage, it wasn’t because of public pressure campaigns. It’s because the insurance industry would view a 68-year-old pipeline with a recent oil spill, and a checkered safety record, as a high-risk client.

In its letter to regulators, Trans Mountain argued that disclosing its insurers could result in a “material loss” to the company and “prejudice the competitive position of its insurers” because of “targeting and pressure” on insurance companies from groups opposed to the pipeline.

Trans Mountain and its parent company, the Canada Development Investment Corporation, did not respond to a request for comment. When the pipeline was re-approved in 2019, the Canadian government vowed to invest the money it earned from operating it into "Canada's clean energy transition."

The pipeline was also ordered to follow a set of 156 conditions, designed to mitigate a wide range of risks, from environmental issues like water quality and fish habitat to marine shipping and effects on Indigenous communities.

In June 2020, as much as 190,000 litres of crude oil leaked from a failed compression fitting at one of Trans Mountain’s pump stations in Abbotsford, B.C., according to a review by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Some of the oil contaminated a nearby agricultural field.

Four months later, Samatar Sahal, a 40-year-old employee of one of Trans Mountain’s general contractors, died after being struck by equipment at a pipeline construction site. Then, in December, another contractor was “seriously injured” at the pipeline’s Burnaby terminal. Trans Mountain shut down construction for a few months and started up again in February after vowing to retrain workers and supervisors.

Allan also called the timing of Trans Mountain’s request to the Canada Energy Regulator “highly suspect.” The company filed its request to shield its insurers just after Indigenous youth with the Braided Warriors group had peacefully occupied the downtown Vancouver office building for AIG.

Zurich, a former insurer, has confirmed it does not intend to reinsure the pipeline, while two others, Munich Re and HDI, will follow suit, according to environmental group Stand.earth.

The others — AIG, Chubb, Energy Insurance Mutual Limited, Liberty Mutual, Starr, Stewart Specialty Risk Underwriting Ltd. and WR Berkley — either declined to comment or did not respond.

To the Tsleil-Waututh, who call themselves the “people of the Inlet,” the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is an existential threat to their way of life.

Aleck said the Tsleil-Waututh have worked tirelessly on restoring local ecosystems, cleaning up clam beds that they were recently able to successfully harvest and witnessing herring fish return and spawn, both for the first time in 60 years.

“To have the traffic of the tankers, or an oil spill, would just decimate all possible rehabilitation that we’ve done,” she said. “This project will just decimate everything.”

Trans Mountain has said it has signed 59 unique, confidential agreements to compensate Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, but critics say the company didn’t get consent from proper titleholders.

Judy Wilson, secretary treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band located east of Kamloops, maintains that the original pipeline was built through contested lands that were never ceded by Indigenous nations. She said the project should disclose its backers.

“When they’re impacting our territorial homelands like that, they should be transparent about who’s insuring it and all aspects of the business,” Wilson said.

The Sunrise Project is a contributor to Floodlight.

Keep reading

Maybe the Federal Government is the insurer? The list of underwriters in this article is pretty lengthy. Which known underwriters are left?

This issue seems to call out loudly for more investigation. I think Carl Meyer will answer the call.

This article illustrates the following Robert A Heinlein quote beautifully:

"It’s not enough to be able to lie with a straight face; anybody with enough gall to raise on a busted flush can do that. The first way to lie artistically is to tell the truth — but not all of it. The second way involves telling the truth, too, but is harder: Tell the exact truth and maybe all of it…but tell it so unconvincingly that your listener is sure you are lying."

To tell the whole truth, link to the complete safety record for the TransMountain pipeline: https://www.transmountain.com/spill-history

To tell the truth unconvincingly, talk about environmental activism motivating secrecy, and then give a list of known problems with known solutions for pipeline development.

This article packs so much crap into such a small space you'd think it was made of neutronium.

It would be an excellent thing to see a genuine, independent risk assessment of diluted bitumen spills in the Salish Sea as the result of TMX tanker traffic. Double hulls, duo tugs and the best navigators in the world cannot protect all tankers from the other guy in a 260 km route, some of it very contorted. Show us the proof of adequate bonding levels to cover hundreds of billions in damages and legal costs to an island archipelago and shipping channels sharing an international boundary. Show us proof that the Asian market exists at so-called premium prices for this low quality product that California refineries would not want instead, paying the same-old quality-related discount. Show us proof that demand for Alberta oil sands dilbit will NOT shrink beyond 2030 with the documented intentions of all car makers to electrify over this decade and cause a large portion of the market share for liquid petroleum fuels in land transport to evaporate.

The probability of a tanker accident in the Burrard Inlet and the seaway out to the ocean is very difficult to calculate because there has never been a tanker accident in the waterway (fuel oil spills don't count here). There have been more than 10,000 loaded tankers over the life of the existing TMX moving oil down that route. If the denominator is 10,000, then Zero divided by 10,000 makes for an infinitely small probability.
One might also note that much of the opposition from indigenous 'nations' with land on the Burrard Inlet comes from those with plans to build condos and resorts on the North shore. Pretty obvious that the terminal will devalue their real estate, but they hide that concern behind bogus assertions that spills are "inevitable" and their self assigned "sacred duty". But back to probabilities - in the limited lifetime of the pipeline? Not so probable.

Typically, if you want to prove that the probability of a bad thing happenning is 1 out of X, then you need to see 3X samples without the bad thing happenning to be reasonably confident that the probability is 1 out of X.

So, based on current observations, the odds of something happenning are really low (1 out of 3333). However, this does not take into account changes in regulations requiring multiple tugs to piloting tankers into and out of the harbour added after the Exxon Valdez spill.

What level of "proof" would you require for demand, or pricing, or risk assessment? Would a methodologically rigorous study that yields an answer opposite what you need to support your world view suffice? What education would you need in order to have a technically valid comprehension of the result?

To me, the proof is clear: People who know how to make good, billion dollar decisions are willing to risk their money to do this thing.

One other thought for you: I've made the case in the past that Canada needs the capability to export oil and gas to support our trading friends. The ability to support Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea (among others) with Canadian raw materials lowers the probability of conflict.

It's strange . . . I can't actually tell whether you're saying the pipeline is fine and everyone should be fine with it, or if you're saying the article makes the environmental case so weakly as to effectively be a counterargument, and should be much stronger.

What I'm saying is that to reach either of your possible conclusions, or even a third one, requires unbiased reporting. And the National Observer clearly is not living up to their own standards, at least in this piece.

My personal favourite conspiracy theory is that the environmentalists are trying to delay pipeline replacement to the point where a major spill does happen and make the replacement pipeline politically unacceptable. They would escape blame for the spill, and take credit for the outcome, but it would clearly be their responsibility.

If they actually cared about the risk to the environment, they would be working hard to get that old pipeline out of the ground and replace it with modern redundant equipment that incorporates the operational and materials lessons of the past 70 years.