Oilsands workers, Fort McMurray leaders disappointed with Trans Mountain setback

At a Fort McMurray diner on Friday, many customers sipped coffee and swallowed their disappointment as they discussed a federal court ruling that has halted work on the Trans Mountain pipeline project.

The $7.4-billion project, which would double the amount of Alberta petroleum products shipped to West Coast refineries, was approved by the federal government in 2016, and seemed set to move ahead this fall. But on Thursday morning, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the National Energy Board’s assessment of the project had been flawed, and had failed to consider the increased tanker traffic that would result from the expansion.

Oilsands worker Ed Johnson said Fort McMurray has already been hit by double disasters.

Crashing oil prices in 2014 sent the economy into a nose dive, then a devastating wildfire in 2016 destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in several communities.

Johnson said it seemed things were looking up.

“We feel we have touched rock bottom and we are starting to come out of that,” he said. “And this (the pipeline) was some positive news. And now to get this disheartening news about shutting down Trans Mountain is wrong.”

René Gallant says he was saddened to learn about the setback for the Trans Mountain pipeline project. (David Thurton/ CBC)

René Gallant, a heavy equipment operator, was saddened by the court ruling.

He said the setback is a win for other oil-producing nations, many of which don’t show the same consideration for human rights or the environment that Canada’s oil and gas industry does.

“I feel really bad for Fort McMurray, and for Alberta and for Canada,” said Gallant, who is originally from P.E.I.

‘I am dancing with joy’

In its ruling, the federal court also said the federal government failed to properly consult with Indigenous groups.

Alice Rigney, vocal opponent of the oilsands, has been concerned for years about the amount of water the industry uses, and the pollutants discharged into the Athabasca river delta.

Though her First Nation has said it wants to own a part of the Trans Mountain pipeline, she isn’t disappointed the court has halted construction.

She said she disagreed when the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation expressed interest in buying into the pipeline, and with Premier Rachel Notley, who said Thursday Albertan’s are “angry” about the court’s decision.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley reacts to the Trans Mountain ruling in a news conference Thursday evening. 0:49

“Premier Notley is so wrong to say all Albertans are angry,” Rigney said from her home in Fort Chipewyan, north of the oilsands region. “I am dancing with joy.” 

“I was surprised and quite happy (with the court’s decision). Indigenous people are finally being heard.”

‘Another blow’

In Fort McMurray, the community’s business and political leaders say they’re frustrated but respect the court’s decision. 

The president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce thinks the pipeline will eventually get built, but said the delays will  hurt the region’s economy. 

Businesses won’t see the economic growth they had hoped for, since Trans Mountain would have increased oilsands production and created access to new global markets.

“It’s another blow,” Kumka said. “It’s not like 10,000 people are moving out of town tomorrow. That’s not going to happen. But it discourages further investment.”

​Mayor Don Scott said the delays are upsetting but Canada pays a price for having a strict approval process.

Mayor Don Scott says he remains confident the expansion project will eventually go ahead. (David Thurton/ CBC)

“A lot of people have talked to me about it in the last 24 hours,” he said. “People are really disappointed, and I share their disappointment.

“The world needs oil that’s built with our high environmental standards. So I believe the world will get access to it. It is just going to take longer than anticipated.”

Connect with David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

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