After 12 years, the $34-billion Trans Mountain pipeline is finally finished. But what happens next?

Opinion:Why does Canada not refine the oil and make use of the byproducts for building materials like roofing shingles and so much more. Instead we ship our recourses away at a fraction of the revenues.

Canada’s $34-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is about to go into service. Now comes the hard part – choosing when to sell it, who gets to buy it and for how much


The Westridge Marine Terminal, as seen from Cates Park, North Vancouver, on April 17, 2024.ALISON BOULIER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The most expensive infrastructure project in Canadian history began as an attempt to provide a simple transport route to the West Coast for growing oil production. A dozen years on, the government-owned operator of the $34-billion Trans Mountain expansion (TMX) is poised to crank open the taps, and it’s proven to be anything but simple.

From the start, the benefit to the energy industry seemed clear: Open up lucrative overseas markets for Canadian oil and remove a price discount that had existed for years because of overreliance on exports to the United States.

Kinder Morgan Inc., the U.S.-based company that owned the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, said in 2012 the project would be easier to complete than building a brand new line from scratch. The company had the benefit of a right-of-way between Alberta and Burnaby, B.C., in which the initial pipeline had been buried since 1953. It pegged the cost of the expansion at $5.4-billion.

TMX, however, became a victim of timing – environmental and Indigenous opposition to new oil pipelines reached a fever pitch as rival TC Energy Corp. fought a battle to gain support for its ill-fated Keystone XL project in the U.S. Canadian courts took a tough stance on companies, regulators and governments to ensure First Nations rights were respected and protected. Construction timelines slipped. Inflation for materials and labour surged.

In 2018, Kinder Morgan, frustrated with delays and deepening regulatory scrutiny, said it wanted to walk away from the project, prompting the federal government to step in with a $4.5-billion deal to buy the existing 300,000 barrels a day pipeline and a pledge to complete the expansion that would nearly triple the capacity.

Cryderman: The Trans Mountain expansion is cause for celebration: Canada got a big project done

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The last section of pipeline is assembled on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, near Laidlaw, B.C., in February 2024.CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

Then, more problems: Construction was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as wildfires and floods. Now, several years and tens of billions in cost overruns beyond the initial target, the project is finally about to start up in energy and environmental conditions that are vastly different than when it was first proposed.

Ottawa owns Trans Mountain, so every Canadian has a stake in its future. With the first oil already flowing along the newly expanded 1,150 kilometre route, due to arrive in Burnaby in mid-May, tough questions linger.

The world is at the beginning of a shift to cleaner energy sources, so the long-term economics are in question. There is still opposition from some Indigenous groups in British Columbia, even as others eye equity stakes when Ottawa eventually opens up bidding for equity ownership. Would First Nations and Métis owners change the calculus for how the pipeline is viewed by governments, environmentalists and the public? Can all of the money that’s poured into the project be recouped in a sale?

Also, there is heightened focus on safety and the impact on wildlife from vastly increased numbers of oil tankers steaming past Vancouver’s busy harbour into the Georgia Strait and the Pacific Ocean.

TMX economics and in a carbon constrained world

Oil markets have changed since 2012. The International Energy Agency predicts that global demand will peak as early as 2030 at more than 103 million barrels a day, then gradually ease off as the energy transition gathers momentum in the two decades after.

TMX pipeline poised to open

The Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) is poised to provide Alberta’s oil patch an expanded export route for diluted bitumen by opening a heavy-oil twin to its 70-year-old pipeline. The pipeline route travels over several mountain ranges and rivers, as well as First Nations communities and a large swath of suburban Vancouver. Then there’s the tanker route under three bridges through the busy heart of Vancouver’s inner harbour and the island-laced channels that lead to the open Pacific.



In billions, estimated

Thousands of barrels per day







New line:

Heavy crude oil

Existing pipeline-active

Existing pipeline-reactivated


New pipeline


Existing line:

Refined products,

synthetic crude oils

and light crude oil

Pump station

Coast Mountains

Rocky Mountains















Trans Mountain has revamped its Westridge

marine terminal by constructing three

tanker berths and building

additional oil storage

tanks nearby.




Trans Mountain


Ironworkers Memorial

Bridge and Second

Narrows Rail Bridge


Lions Gate










Jet fuel



Main St.



Granville St.

Pacific Spirit

Regional Park






2 KM


Two tugboats, tethered to each outbound Aframax tanker, will serve as escorts, for a crucial part of the trip — first sailing under Second Narrows Rail Bridge, then under the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and thirdly, under the Lions Gate Bridge.


Afamax tankers call at Westridge.





Mean high water level

245 m

13.5 m Port of Vancouver

safe draft depth

Bridge raises to

accommodate ships

Machinery house

Second Narrows

Rail Bridge



Control house


Burrard Inlet

34m beam






Not every analyst sees the IEA forecast as gospel – and, indeed, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries predicts a much oilier future. Either way, the additional nearly 600,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day the pipeline will deliver to U.S. West Coast and Asian markets will have a minimal impact on global supply, said Kevin Birn, S&P Global’s chief analyst, Canadian oil markets.

It’s a big deal for Canada though – its first major terminal for overseas oil exports. “In the global oil market context, it will add incremental supply to the world of a different quality that, everywhere else, has been traditionally in decline,” Mr. Birn said. “But in the scale of the global market, it’s not transformational.”

The pipeline will allow Alberta producers to reroute their supply to more lucrative markets. Some analysts predict it will also lead companies to plow cash into boosting output. Until now, exports have been sent almost exclusively to 10 refineries in the U.S. – mainly on aging pipelines that offer low tolls for shippers.

Oil sands producers have the benefit of long-term supply and zero exploration risk. They see their entrance into world markets afforded by the Trans Mountain expansion as an opportunity to wrest market share in the Pacific Rim from other suppliers that face production declines, Mr. Birn said.

Canadian crude that reaches Burnaby through TMX will find welcome markets in Asia and refineries in California, which are able to handle the heavier oil produced in Alberta’s oil sands, said Susan Bell, an analyst at Rystad Energy.

In California, Alberta oil will likely displace a similar grade of crude called Basrah Heavy, produced in Iraq. Californian refineries currently run about 150,000 barrels per day of the stuff, and Canadian oil will make a ready substitute, because it’s closer, cheaper and has similar yields from distillation, Ms. Bell said.

Six of the committed TMX shippers are major oil sands producers and members of the Pathways Alliance. That industry group is seeking taxpayer support for a $16.5-billion carbon capture project, with the aim of cutting 22 megatonnes of greenhouse gas from their operations by 2030. Officials have said their hope is to eventually charge a premium price for the barrels as the emissions are abated.

Global finance experts have warned high-carbon assets risk losing their economic value as cleaner energy and transport take over, though so far that has yet to happen. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed how renewable energy was not ready to step into the void left by Russia’s decision to shut off the flow of its oil and gas to Europe.

With the cost overrun, an important equation is the long-term impact on TMX’s economics if demand for Canada’s crude tails off. The extra costs will have to be borne by the shippers in the form of higher tolls and, possibly, by taxpayers, said Bentley Allan, principal at Transition Accelerator, a think tank that advises government and business on aligning industrial policy with net zero targets.

Mr. Allan has called for industrial policy to make Canada a global force in the energy transition as it was after the buildup of its oil sands sector in the 1990s and 2000s.

“There is a pretty high chance that it’ll be a stranded asset. It’s going to add a tonne of cost to the oil that’s produced in the oil sands to get out to the West Coast,” Mr. Allan said. There is little doubt the world will still use oil by 2050, but the preferred barrels will be those with the lowest production cost and smallest carbon emissions, he said.

If no buyer steps up to pay the full amount that has already been sunk into the pipeline and Canadian taxpayers are on the hook for some of the cost overruns, they will be subsidizing higher domestic emissions through increasing output as well as Canada’s contribution to global emissions, he said.

Opinion: Why Canada
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The Trans Mountain Burnaby Terminal tank farm in Burnaby, B.C., on in April 2024. After four years and more than $34-billion in costs, the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion will go into commercial service on May 1.DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

However, if the industry succeeds in decarbonizing the output, it will be a more desirable product, Mr. Birn said. “We think over time as buyers begin to scrutinize their value chains more, this will become more valuable to them,” he said. “Presently the market isn’t pricing that in, but we think that’s been impaired by a lack of comprehensive, consistent data for comparative analysis between different supply chains.”

Clearly, carbon policy remains a wild card. Ottawa has proposed an emissions cap on the industry of 35 to 38 per cent below 2019 levels by 2030. The Alberta government is staunchly opposed to meeting that target, and the Calgary Chamber of Commerce warned those CO2 restrictions will limit Trans Mountain’s sale price.

Equity ownership: An opportunity for Indigenous communities?

On its way from Edmonton to the saltwater of Burrard Inlet, TMX travels through areas spanned by Treaty 6 and Treaty 8 and the traditional territories of more than 130 Indigenous groups, crossing 15 First Nations reserves in B.C. on the way.

That dynamic – of a pipeline that intersects with not just the lands, but the cultures, histories and ambitions of Indigenous peoples along the route – has proved one of the project’s most complex and challenging aspects. Indigenous communities are weighing the prospect of taking an ownership stake – even as questions over long-term returns and environmental risks remain.

Canada’s duty to consult First Nations, Inuit and Métis people before taking actions that could affect them is established under law, reinforced by a string of Supreme Court of Canada decisions. The first consultation process for TMX began in 2013 and wound up in 2016, when Ottawa approved the project.

The Federal Court of Appeal in 2018 quashed that approval, finding the National Energy Board, now the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), had erred by not considering the environmental impacts of project-related marine shipping, and the government had failed in its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples.

The ruling kicked off a new round of consultations, and Ottawa reapproved the project in June, 2019. At that time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would launch the next phase of engagement with Indigenous groups, including through equity ownership, calling the process “an important step on our path toward reconciliation.”

That would-be sales process has lurched along in fits and starts, reflecting the difficulties of negotiating with multiple parties and the escalating costs of the project.

Still, various groups say they remain keen. Project Reconciliation was formed in 2018 to seek a 51 per cent stake in the pipeline on behalf of 120 Western Canadian First Nations. Its plan includes financing the acquisition with bonds backed by the shipping contracts and guaranteed by the federal government.

That ambition has since expanded. It now plans to bid for up to 100 per cent of Trans Mountain on fully commercial terms, Steve Mason, Project Reconciliation’s chief executive officer, said at the group’s downtown Calgary headquarters. It wants to offer Indigenous communities more than employment opportunities and land access fees. It says ownership stakes would generate revenue that can benefit communities in the form of other infrastructure and investing in other business opportunities.

The group foresees $430-million a year in free cash flow from the pipeline after servicing the debt, though the commercial details must still be finalized. Mr. Mason declined to get into bidding details such as price, but stressed the group would not pay the full amount that’s been invested in the pipeline and expansion so far.

Project Reconciliation would look to keep Trans Mountain’s operating division in place to take advantage of its decades of experience, rather than partnering with another pipeline company to run the line.

“We remain ready, willing and able to be in the conversation with the federal government to purchase 100 per cent of Trans Mountain equity on behalf of 100 per cent Indigenous ownership. And we are very confident in the operating capabilities of Trans Mountain Corp. to continue to operate that pipeline,” Mr. Mason said.

In 2021, Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, a group made up of First Nations from B.C. and Alberta, teamed up with Calgary-based Pembina Pipeline Corp. to form Chinook Pathways, a 50-50 joint venture eyeing full ownership of the pipeline.

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Chief David Jimmie, chief of Squiala First Nation and WIPG chairman, said his community was initially opposed to the pipeline, and fought it until legal appeals were exhausted.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

WIPG chairman David Jimmie, chief of Squiala First Nation near Chilliwack, B.C., has said his community was initially opposed to the pipeline, and fought it until legal appeals were exhausted. It now considers a possible ownership stake as the best opportunity to ensure environmental concerns are met and potential profits flow to the community.

Mr. Jimmie acknowledged an inquiry from The Globe and Mail, but said he was unable to provide any update.

Talks appeared to be edging closer to a deal in August, 2023, when Ottawa said it was prepared to provide financial backing for First Nations and Métis groups to help them buy a stake in TMX.

Canada’s push toward a net zero economy has added momentum, as proponents look to Indigenous partnerships to help get projects built more quickly and at a larger scale. Access to capital, long a hurdle for many First Nations and Métis communities, is becoming more available, thanks in part to Indigenous loan guarantee programs in Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and, should the April federal budget take effect, at the federal level.

Indigenous groups are not the only potential bidders. Alberta Investment Management Corp., the province’s public sector pension manager, is interested in the project, CEO Evan Siddall said early this year. AIMCo had no update to provide for this story, spokesperson Carolyn Quick said.

Michael Davies, chief operating officer at Trans Mountain, declined to comment on acquisition proposals, saying that’s ultimately up to the federal government. He also declined to predict if any purchase price will reflect what’s been spent.

“I’m not the CFO,” Mr. Davies says. “But the project creates great value in the Canadian economy, it’s going to create great value for our shippers. And as we work our way through this sale process, there’s many factors – including the cost of the project – that will determine what its value is to the market.”

Ottawa has been clear it does not plan to be the long-term owner. The government is holding talks with various Indigenous groups about the potential for their economic participation, said Katherine Cuplinskas, spokesperson for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. However, she declined to give a timeline for the sale process to begin, only that it would be “in due course.”

The government is confident in the pipeline’s value once the expansion is up and running, owing to its ability to raise prices for the country’s oil and provide secure energy to allies when global conflict has threatened stability, she said.

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Rueben George, a Tsleil-Waututh Nation member and spokesman for the Sacred Trust Initiative, at Cates Park in North Vancouver on April 17.ALISON BOULIER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Rueben George is a Tsleil-Waututh Nation member and spokesman for the Sacred Trust Initiative, a TWN initiative focused on stopping the project.

On a sunny day at Cates Park, directly across from the Westridge oil terminal, Mr. George said TMX lacks a solid business case, is likely to become a stranded asset and poses unacceptable environmental risks to Tsleil-Waututh members and the broader community.

He sees no reason for Indigenous communities to consider owning even part of it.

“We did a spill analysis, we did an economic analysis – all those threats are real now,” Mr. George said, referring to Tsleil-Waututh research on potential threats to wildlife, including killer whales.

He expects to continue speaking out against the pipeline.

“We are going to be caretakers of this land, as we have been from time out of mind. Just because the pipeline is built and supposedly finished, doesn’t mean we are going to stop being stewards of our lands and our waters.”

The companies and the reshaping of flows

With the addition of the new pipeline’s capacity of 590,000 barrels a day of heavy crude, a total of more than 890,000 barrels a day of oil and refined products from Alberta’s oil sands will be able to be shipped. Given the huge volume at stake, analysts have grilled oil company executives in recent earnings calls on how the pipeline will affect profits.

In 2022, the price spread between U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude and lower-priced Western Canadian Select (WCS) heavy crude averaged US$18.22 per barrel, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Executives predict that the gap will shrink once the expansion comes online, and the Alberta government agrees, projecting it will narrow by US$3.70 a barrel over the next three years.

Rystad Energy’s Ms. Bell said TMX will create competition for Canadian oil, which could add US$3 to US$4 a barrel to the price.

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith delivers a speech in Ottawa, on April 12. She said she would like to see the province double its oil and gas production.SPENCER COLBY/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has long said that she would like to see the province double its oil and gas production, and said recently she hopes profits from higher commodity prices will be reflected in companies’ capital spending to help that along.

Oil sands companies started increasing production in preparation for TMX late last year, hitting record levels in December at 3.57 million barrels per day.

Greg Pardy, head of global energy research at RBC Capital Markets, said in a recent research note that Canada’s oil sands production will increase moderately from 2023 to 2030 as a result of TMX, reaching around 3.8 million barrels a day.

Cenovus Energy Inc. is Trans Mountain’s largest shipper. Once the expansion comes into service, the Calgary-based company is set to move 144,000 barrels per day to the West Coast on the line – about 24 per cent of the new TMX pipeline’s capacity, S&P Global said in a recent analysis.

Cenovus and the nine other shippers on the pipeline – BP PLC, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), MEG Energy Corp., ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial Oil Ltd., Marathon Petroleum Corp., Parkland Refining, PetroChina Co. Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. – have committed to take about 80 per cent of the capacity under 15 to 20-year deals, according to Trans Mountain.

The remaining 20 per cent of the volume is reserved for shipments not tied to long-term contracts. But there’s a chance the pipeline won’t run full.

The question of tolls remains unanswered, and that has a big impact on future profitability for the shippers. Last year the CER set an interim shipping toll of $11.46 a barrel for 15-year contracts, about double the rate estimated in 2017.

The shippers have been locked in dispute with Trans Mountain over the issue of tolls, and this past week the CER granted their request for the pipeline company to provide them information supporting its case. A hearing on the issue, which will affect the eventual price of Trans Mountain, is slated to begin in early 2025.

Ms. Bell said high tolls could repel shippers without long-term contracts, who are more likely to choose cheaper rates on the Mainline pipeline, which belongs to Enbridge Inc. That pipeline has the capacity to transport 2.85 million barrels a day of light and heavy crude oil from Edmonton to the U.S. Midwest and Ontario.

Mr. Davies acknowledged there has been a lot of speculation about how quickly theTrans Mountain line will fill, and how much oil goes to Burnaby docks versus Puget Sound in Washington State, a route that has long been available to shippers.

“The market will decide,” he said, and much will depend on the logistics around shipping. “I expect that we will be full. Just having access to the Pacific Rim is going to be a compelling opportunity for our shippers.”

Cenovus is boosting oil sands production in preparation for TMX, and CEO Jon McKenzie told analysts in February he expects that number to hit around one million extra barrels by midyear.

CNRL, the country’s largest oil and gas producer by market capitalization, has 94,000 barrels a day committed capacity on the expanded TMX. Scott Stauth, CNRL’s president, told investors in February that it’s not just WCS that will likely see a price bump due to TMX. He expects the same for SCO, a synthetic crude oil made from extra-heavy, high-sulfur bitumen mined from the Athabasca oil sands.

Imperial Oil CEO Brad Corson acknowledges his company holds a relatively minor capacity reservations on TMX compared with some of its competitors. But in a February earnings call, he said the pipeline expansion will allow the sector to more efficiently access higher-value markets.

That’s where the inherent value of the project lies – allowing Canadian oil access to world markets, thereby getting a higher price for the commodity and closing the differential for the entire sector, not just those that ship on the line, Mr. Davies said. That could mean $55-billion more in taxes and royalties in Canada from 2024 to 2043, he said.

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Oil tankers will start departing from the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby by late May. Activists warn that the risk of an oil spill off B.C.’s coast is too high, especially with tanker traffic set to surge.ALISON BOULIER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

What it means for the West Coast

Oil tankers, soon to be filled with diluted bitumen from the newly expanded pipeline system, will start departing from the Westridge Marine Terminal in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby by late May.

Following established protocols, two marine pilots will board each vessel at Westridge in the Port of Vancouver. The pilots will be tasked with guiding the foreign ships and their crew safely through B.C.’s coastal waters.

“The tankers are operated extremely safely. There are lots of mitigations and safety measures in place,” said Brian Young, COO at the Pacific Pilotage Authority, a federal Crown corporation. “The message should instill confidence in the public rather than fear.”

The Coast Guard and Western Canada Marine Response Corp., which is certified by Transport Canada, are trained to respond to any oil spills.

Still, environmental groups warn that even with safeguards, a marine disaster could occur, as evidenced in March when a container ship struck a support pier in the harbour in Baltimore, Md., causing the Francis Scott Key Bridge to collapse, killing six workers.

Activists warn that the risk of an oil spill off B.C.’s coast is too high, especially with tanker traffic set to surge. “We are extremely concerned that one of these tankers is going to have a bad day. And that bad day will be catastrophic for the ecosystems and the communities,” said Peter McCartney, climate campaigner at the Wilderness Committee.

In the past, an average of five tankers a month loaded at Westridge. The schedule will gradually pick up starting in late May, until there is an average of 34 tankers each month calling at the marine terminal.

Two tugboats, tethered with synthetic tow lines to each tanker, will serve as escorts for a crucial part of the trip – first sailing under Second Narrows Railway Bridge, then the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and thirdly, under the Lions Gate Bridge.

“Ships calling at Westridge use a centralized scheduling system so that we can safely and effectively get them through without any conflicts,” said Jordan Pechie, senior vice-president at Seaspan Marine Transportation, one of the tugboat operators in the region.

The Aframax ships deployed at Westridge are restricted to transit during daylight hours. “We continue to work closely with partners to enhance our vessel traffic management procedures,” said Sean Baxter, acting director of marine operations and harbour master at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

Beginning in late May, when the pace starts to pick up for export shipments, the procedures will be beefed up for ensuring the safe passage of tankers along Vancouver’s inner harbour and through waters near Victoria.

Harbour pilots will stay on the outbound ships for a longer duration than in the past. Tugboats will have additional role to play by escorting tankers, untethered, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the southwest side of Vancouver Island.

Editor’s note: A previous version of the headline incorrectly stated the cost of the Trans Mountain pipeline is $34-million. It is $34-billion.

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