LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Energy is a big part of the relationship between Canada and the United States, which we've been talking about this hour. Here's one project you might not have heard of even though it's huge. It's called the Trans Mountain Pipeline. And on our trip north, we began our reporting on a rocky beach.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We walk down to where flat waters are surrounded by hills covered by evergreens. These are the Tsleil-Waututh Nation's ancestral lands. Their name means people of the inlet. Their creation story is about these waters. And they've inhabited this place for thousands of years.
CHARLENE ALECK: Historically, Tsleil-Waututh has known this place to be like our warrior village or our summer village.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charlene Aleck is an elected councilor of this First Nation community, which is how indigenous peoples are referred to in Canada.
ALECK: And that's where - we're at the point where it faces the wind. That's (foreign language spoken) - means faces the wind - where we could see any kind of canoe traffic or traffic on the water coming in.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this morning, instead of canoes, there's a bright red ship floating next to two giant oil storage tanks at a terminal on the other shore. That is where the Trans Mountain Pipeline ends. The oil it carries comes from the landlocked Alberta Tar Sands, some 700 miles away. Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based company that runs the pipeline, is now planning to expand it, increasing its capacity threefold.
Rueben George is another Tsleil-Waututh leader. He points to construction buoys and barbed wire in the water.
RUEBEN GEORGE: What we're seeing is that one of the big tankers that's going to take out some oil. And what we're seeing is they're about to do some construction, so...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This expansion would mean many more oil tankers moving through this inlet.
ALECK: The pipeline expansion terminates right - I don't say in our backyard - I say in our kitchen. Because Tsleil-Waututh people, we have gotten about 100 percent of our diet from the water. So we sustained our life for thousands of years being here - and since time of contact of industry and pollution and that we haven't been able to harvest from the inlet.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so the concern with this pipeline is that that would exacerbate that trend and imperil the inlet even further?
ALECK: It's not if a spill happens, it's when it happens.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At first contact with Europeans, this community was decimated by smallpox and other diseases and, at one point, dwindled to a few dozen members. Their population was able to recover some. But George says in the 1950s, with the construction of the original oil pipeline, First Nations had no say in how the land was used.
GEORGE: It was against the law for First Nations to talk to a lawyer, to speak our language, practice our culture.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That has changed. Now they're actively trying to stop the pipeline expansion partnering with environmental groups and taking the project to court. We should say that the Tsleil-Waututh are not anti-development. They want it to be sustainable. They're suing along with six other First Nations on the grounds that they weren't meaningfully consulted about the pipeline.
We spoke with Ali Hounsell of Kinder Morgan. She says they made good faith efforts to work with the First Nations.
ALI HOUNSELL: Their position has to not - has - to not engage from the beginning. So - but it didn't stop us from attempting to engage on multiple occasions, sending information, attempting to meet. And you know, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with them anytime.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the Tsleil-Waututh are not the only group opposed to the expansion. Local and regional governments are also against it. They say they're assuming all of the risk of the project while the province of Alberta gets all of the financial benefits. There is a bigger picture here, though.
JIM CARR: Ninety-nine percent of our oil exports are to the United States. We like you. We like you a lot. But we want to be liked by others around the world. And the Trans Mountain expansion will open up that market.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr. The federal government in Ottawa says the pipeline expansion is important for all of Canada. The oil from the expanded pipeline will be destined for Asia where it can get a higher price for the product. And over 15,000 jobs, it says, will also be created.
One of the companies that may see a boost is Mott Electric in Burnaby, British Columbia. Graham Trafford is the general manager. We met him in his offices.
Great. Where would you like to sit?
GRAHAM TRAFFORD: In a chair.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That would be good.
He's a really funny guy. His company employs 450 people and has worked with Kinder Morgan, the company expanding the pipeline. He says Mott Electric will bid on some of the new pipeline work.
TRAFFORD: If we were successful in getting some of that work, there could be anywhere up to 60 to 100 electricians working on that project.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they'll be paid very well.
TRAFFORD: They're going to spend money in the communities they're in. They're also going to be paying taxes to the B.C. government and to the federal government. And for me, too, I look at - I'm very involved with training. It's a high-level project for electrical apprentice to learn on. And I don't think you can measure the value of something like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for Trafford, it's not only about the economics, he says he'd love to say the world doesn't rely on petroleum. But that's just not the way things are right now.
TRAFFORD: Buses, trains, anything like that need petroleum products to build them. We have electric vehicles that we have for our staff. You know, we're trying, from our point of view, to be good corporate citizens. But even all those things, it takes petroleum products to build them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's the debate going on in Canada. But the United States has a stake in this, too, even though the pipeline doesn't cross the border. Because when the tankers fill up in a small inlet in British Columbia, they will travel to the Pacific through a body of water that is shared with the United States. It's called the Salish Sea. And people in Washington state are looking north with concern.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We drove across the border in the pouring rain to the reservation of the Lummi nation just over 20 miles south. The rain had stopped when we got there. But the wind was fierce, making the waves choppy. The Pacific Northwest has erratic weather and treacherous waterways. And for Jay Julius, an elected council member for the Lummi Nation, more boats going through the area increase the likelihood of a spill.
JAY JULIUS: A pipeline leak, an oil spill knows nothing about boundaries. It has no idea when it's entering or about to leave a reservation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Lummi make their living from the sea. And an oil spill would devastate their economy.
JULIUS: We have hatcheries, aquaculture, salmon hatcheries. We hunt these waters. It feeds their families in the winter. It feeds our longhouses, our smokehouses, our ceremonial needs.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Canada's government says it's put $1.5 billion towards oil spill response training and equipment. But for Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, it's not enough.
JAY INSLEE: I'm appreciative of Prime Minister Trudeau's efforts to boost the oil spill recovery capacity. That's a good thing. But the fact of the matter is there's no power on earth that can actually save you from just devastation from an oil spill.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Both the Lummi and the state of Washington are on the sidelines of this fight, though. It's the First Nations in Canada who can stop the project. And many oil, gas, mineral and coal projects have been derailed over the past few years in court cases brought by indigenous groups there.
Jeff Brady covers energy for NPR. He's reported on the Keystone XL project, a pipeline extension that was also designed to unlock Alberta oil.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: This was supposed to be one of those no-brainer pipeline projects that would just take a couple of years to get approved and built. But that was 10 years ago. And President Obama finally rejected it in 2015. I was in Alberta then. And the people I talked to were really stunned. They just were very worried about how it would affect the local economy. A lot of jobs were dependent on being able to get that oil out of Alberta and down to the Texas Gulf Coast for - where it can be processed.
And that decision has hurt the growth of the oil sands business in Canada. Some big players like Royal Dutch Shell have pretty much pulled out of that business. It has not grown as quickly as it would have otherwise. But now President Trump's administration has approved the pipeline. But TransCanada, the company behind the project, still hasn't made a final decision. The company says an announcement on that is coming soon. But the oil prices are a lot lower now. And it's not clear if the pipeline still makes economic sense.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that we've seen is First Nations, Native American tribes have come out in the forefront of their opposition to energy projects on both sides of the border. How's this played out?
BRADY: You know I've been watching this for a long time now. And what I've noticed is that indigenous people on both sides of the border - on the Canadian side, on the U.S. side - they're getting a lot more organized about environmental issues and about energy production issues. And they have a much stronger voice in how countries are deciding, you know, which fossil fuels they're going to develop and which are going to be left in the ground.
And I think a big example of that in the U.S. was the Dakoda Access Pipeline last year. We saw the the protest organized by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. And in that case, they really only delayed the pipeline construction. But that's kind of a victory in itself. Because if you think of the Keystone XL, it shows that if you delay a pipeline long enough that project may never get built.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Jeff Brady.
For its part, Kinder Morgan says it's behind schedule. But it is committed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "STRONGER")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.