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Pipeline firms brace for clashes after activists target operations

Activists opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline confront bulldozers working on the new oil pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, Sept. 3, 2016.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Major pipeline companies are grappling with blockades and repeated disruptions to operations as hardline activists demand an accelerated transition away from fossil fuels.

The day after climate activists targeted five major cross-border pipelines carrying crude from the oil sands, the Canadian head of Kinder Morgan Inc. said he is preparing for construction blockades if Ottawa approves a threefold expansion to his company's Trans Mountain pipeline later this year.

President Ian Anderson said Kinder Morgan Canada has been in "deep" conversations with policing authorities, including the RCMP, trying to anticipate the reaction if the plan is approved. The company is spelling out explicit instructions for contractors should they encounter protesters, drawing lessons from clashes in North Dakota over the $3.7-billion (U.S.) Dakota Access pipeline under construction, he said.

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A decision on the contentious Kinder Morgan expansion project, which would allow for increased market access for Canada's oil sands and other producers, is due by mid-December. The Trudeau government is widely expected to approve it over the objections of municipal politicians in the B.C. Lower Mainland and some First Nations along the 1,150-kilometre route from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C.

"I'd be naive if I didn't expect" blockades, Mr. Anderson told reporters in Calgary on Wednesday. "It's hopefully peaceful. People have the right to express their views publicly, and in that regard we'll accept and acknowledge that. It's when it goes beyond that that we're going to have to be prepared."

He said he hopes municipalities, pipeline contractors and the 41 First Nations that support the project help dispel the notion that opposition to the pipeline is unanimous.

The comments underline the high stakes for the Trudeau government as it weighs final approval of the $6.8-billion (Canadian) pipeline, which would boost capacity to nearly 900,000 barrels a day, from 300,000 barrels today.

On Tuesday, activists from a small, upstart group called Climate Direct Action managed or attempted to shut down five pipelines in four U.S. states. The group, made up of about a dozen American activists, wanted to bring attention to climate change and opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. It released photos and videos showing activists using chain cutters to gain access to facilities and turning the crank on valves to try to force the shutdown of pipelines. The five pipelines have the combined capacity to move about 2.6 million barrels a day of crude to the United States from Canada, equal to about 13 per cent of U.S. consumption.

The group has moved the level of protest beyond opposing the construction of new pipelines, or the expansion of Canada's oil sands industry, and is targeting existing energy infrastructure. One of the targets was Kinder Morgan's Puget Sound system, which transports crude from the existing Trans Mountain line at Abbotsford, B.C., to refineries in Washington state.

The four large North American pipeline firms that were targeted said their operations were back to normal by the end of the day Tuesday, or earlier, and there was little impact to their operations. Mr. Anderson described the incident as reckless, but said no harm was caused and no supply was interrupted.

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TransCanada Corp. spokesman Mark Cooper also said that in light of the "co-ordinated and reckless" meddling with its high-pressure Keystone pipeline infrastructure and facilities in North Dakota, the company has taken steps to enhance its security measures.

Enbridge Inc. spokesman Graham White wouldn't speak about security measures but said both Line 4 and Line 67 pipelines in Minnesota were running again by Tuesday evening, and "client deliveries were not impacted." TransCanada and Spectra Energy Corp. also said they were able to quickly restart affected lines.

Chris Bloomer, president and chief executive of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), said demonstrators have the right to voice their opinions about energy development, but tampering with pipelines puts nearby communities and the environment in danger. The industry group said no one should condone this type of protest.

"Activists need to recognize that an unauthorized and unscheduled valve closure on any pipeline could result in unpredicted pressure changes, which can pose some extremely serious risks," Mr. Bloomer said in a news release.

However, Jay O'Hara, a spokesman for Climate Direct Action, said he personally made a phone call to pipeline companies' emergency lines to warn them of the group's action 15 minutes before they twisted the shut-off valve at each site – so the companies could pre-emptively shut down the pipelines. Enbridge confirmed it received the call, and temporarily shut down Lines 4 and 67 to protect communities and first responders. Mr. White said the pipelines were not shut down by the activities of the trespassers.

Late Wednesday, Mr. O'Hara said 10 of the group's members had been arrested and remained in custody.

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"We are literally just a group of friends working together," he said in an interview from Seattle. "The unfortunate situation really is that the police, for some reason, chose to scoop up documentary film crews and other support people who were not trespassing, not turning valves."

Kinder Morgan should expect a replay of the blockades it saw two years ago when protesters interrupted the company's work on Burnaby Mountain, said Lynne Quarmby, a biochemistry professor at Simon Fraser University and Green Party candidate in the last federal election.

"I know there are a lot of people who are really passionate about the fact we need to put the brakes on the direction society is going," said Ms. Quarmby, who was arrested during the 2014 protests. "If government is not going to do the job, then people all have to step up."

Several environmental group are active in the battle against the pipeline. Activist groups vow to "bird-dog" Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to hound him and protest during public appearances, as they did with President Barack Obama during the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that the President eventually rejected.

The Liberal government promises to make a decision on the Trans Mountain expansion before Christmas, and is said to be leaning towards approval. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says her government will only co-operate with Ottawa on its carbon-pricing plan if it approves a pipeline to allow the province's oil industry to access new markets.

Some First Nations are also vowing to engage in direct action – as well as court challenges – to block the pipeline project. More than 50 indigenous groups have signed the "treaty alliance against tar sands expansion" in which they vow to "to collectively challenge and resist" the use of their traditional territories and coastlines for oil sands pipeline projects.

With a report from Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa

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About the Authors

Jeff Lewis is a reporter specializing in energy coverage for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Previously, he was a reporter with the Financial Post, writing news and features about Canada’s oil industry. His work has taken him to Norway and the Canadian Arctic. More

Alberta reporter

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