Demonstrators in Burnaby, British Columbia, protest the expansion of the government-owned Trans Mountain PipelineDemonstrators in Burnaby, British Columbia, protest the expansion of the government-owned Trans Mountain Pipeline. Photo credit: Jason Redmond/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

A group of young people who have organized strikes across Canada to protest a lack of action on climate change are demanding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau protect the climate by rejecting the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

In a legal demand letter submitted Monday, attorneys for the young people said Trudeau and the Canadian government have a constitutional obligation to consider how the proposed project would impact the climate. The Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) is a controversial update to a 66-year old pipeline that carries tar sands oil across Alberta to the British Columbia coast.

It was first approved by Canada’s National Energy Board in 2013, sparking widespread protest about its environmental as well as climate impact. The pipeline was purchased by the Canadian government from Kinder Morgan last year to ensure the expansion gets built and subsequently had its permit ruled illegal because of the sale. The National Energy Board has said it will decide whether to reapprove the project by June 18

“Throughout the multi-year assessment, the government has consistently refused to assess the full climate impacts associated with the TMX, or to evaluate its climate impacts on the rights of Canadian youth,” the attorneys wrote in the letter.

“We submit that the failure to fully consider the TMX climate impacts on the rights to life, liberty and security of the person of youth is unconstitutional, and that prioritizing short-term economic growth over the lives and livelihoods of youth is discriminatory.”

Currently, the pipeline  can move up to 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day across 715 miles. The proposed expansion would run about 609 miles along the existing pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, creating a twin pipeline system with a combined capacity to 890,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day.

If completed, the expansion project will allow for a large-scale expansion of tar sands extraction in Alberta.

Initially owned by Kinder Morgan, it is now controlled by parliament through the Canada Development Investment Corporation, which manages investments by the Canadian government.  

Since the sale, a federal court vacated the project’s approval because the Canadian government failed to consult with Indigenous leaders, who say the federal government does not have the authority to approve the pipeline expansion because it trespasses on unceded Coast Salish territory.

“Oil companies are making record profits and crying poverty. The economic case for this project collapsed with $120 a barrel crude oil prices,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “The boom is over and it’s not coming back – we must embrace a clean energy economy for our children and grandchildren, despite Justin Trudeau’s ongoing support to the dirty fossil fuel industry.”  

Since it was first announced, more than 200 people have been arrested while protesting the proposed Trans Mountain expansion. Hundreds rallied in Vancouver on Sunday to voice opposition to the project.

Crude extracted from Canada’s oil sands region, which has been referred to as a “carbon bomb,”  is particularly carbon intensive. Calculations done in relation to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—which, if built, would carry tar sands oil from Canada across the middle of the U.S.—have shown tar sands oil is five to 20 times more carbon intensive than regular crude.

“Our government is working hard to build a cleaner, brighter, and more prosperous future that will help Canadians save energy, reduce air pollution, and put more money in their pockets,” said  Vanessa Adams, press secretary for Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Amarject Sohi.

“Regarding the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, we are following the guidance from the Federal Court of Appeal to move this process forward in the right way, through meaningful consultations,” Adams said. “We know that we owe it to Canadians to get this process right.”

The young protesters contend that if constructed, the TMX would produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to roughly 23 percent of Canada’s emissions, an amount greater than the emissions of Ethiopia and dozens of other countries.

Dr. James Hansen, who submitted an expert report along with the young peoples’ demand letter, said approving the project would violate fundamental rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter, “further lock the nation into an emissions pathway that is both ‘incompatible with Paris Agreement’ and lead to “substantial loss of human life.’”

A study commissioned by the city of Vancouver found that the expansion project’s downstream greenhouse gas emissions could amount to the annual equivalent of adding roughly 13 million passenger vehicles or cutting down about 75 million acres of forest.

“The government knows all of the detrimental factors that go along with their choice to push this expansion forward,” said 19-year-old Christina McCarvell from London, Ontario. “They know about the risks, and the destruction and the unfair choices they are forcing the original inhabitants of the land to make. For some reason they do not feel the fear because they think money can solve everything.”

Eighteen-year-old Olivier Adkin-Kaya from Edmonton, Alberta, is tired of waiting for the government to act, noting that all the major political parties support the pipeline expansion.

“As our governments are failing to act meaningfully to rein in the climate crisis, the only thing left for us students to do is to strike and mobilize in other ways to make them take the necessary actions,” she said.

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