Why won’t this giant oil pipeline reveal its secret backers?

Expansion will stretch hundreds miles and is fiercely opposed by numerous groups – but despite repeated calls the Canadian government has not forced the pipeline reveal its insurers

Why won’t this giant oil pipeline reveal its secret backers?
Construction on the Trans Mountain oil pipeline in Acheson, Alberta, Canada, in December 2019. (Candace Elliott / Reuters)

Published in the Guardian, Canada's National Observer

Nestled in the harbors of Vancouver, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has lived for thousands of years within an inlet set against the mountain views of the Pacific Northwest.

But across the water from Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s reserve, less than 2 kilometers away, or a little over a mile, is a jarring juxtaposition: an industrial terminal for the large Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

Oil tankers have frequented the terminal weekly for years, and now it is being enlarged so Trans Mountain can triple the amount of oil it transports from the landlocked oil sands of Alberta to the West Coast. Traffic will increase by sevenfold – bringing in up to 34 giant oil tankers a month and three barges, the Canadian government-owned company has forecasted.

In traditional ceremonies on the water, the supertankers already dwarf the Tsleil-Waututh’s cedar strip canoes, said Charlene Aleck, the spokesperson for the Sacred Trust Initiative, which is trying to stop the expansion.

“It is that look of a David-and-Goliath fight,” Aleck said.

Last week, opponents of the project suffered a major setback in that struggle. In an expanding front of the climate movement, the Initiative and allied environmental organizations have been targeting the insurers and other financial institutions that make pipelines and other fossil fuel projects possible, ramping up public pressure on the companies.

But in response, Canadian regulators are agreeing to a request from Trans Mountain to keep the names of its insurers secret.

Nor are they alone. California officials have similarly declined to require insurers to disclose their fossil fuel investments and the projects they underwrite. In Connecticut — a U.S. insurance hub — one lawmaker is trying to make the industry reveal its fossil fuel investments and the premiums they charge companies.

The Biden Administration is also strategizing about requiring companies to be more transparent about the risks they face from climate change, as extreme weather intensifies and disrupts economies.

Carmen Balber, the California-based executive director of Consumer Watchdog, said insurers helping the fossil fuel industry are working against their own interests and will ultimately leave the public to clean up the mess.

“What if doctors offered cigarettes in their waiting rooms … What if firefighters were giving out matches and flame throwers?” Balber said. “It does not make sense for the insurance industry to be causing the very disasters that they’re insuring against.”

Pressure campaigns against fossil fuel insurers have become a critical strategy in the international environmental movement.

“Basically, without insurance, there’s no project approval, there’s no project financing,” said Ross Hammond, a senior insurance strategist with the Sunrise Project.

Hammond said until about four years ago insurers were considered to be enlightened about climate risks. They were among the first to ring alarm bells about the crisis in the 1970s.

“The problem is, what that doesn’t include is the other side of the equation … like what are the insurers themselves doing to make the problem worse?” Hammond said.

In California, in 2019, watchdog groups tried and failed to get the state’s insurance department to require insurers to disclose which fossil fuel projects they back.

Now, public advocates have their sights on Connecticut, where many insurers are based. A lawmaker there has proposed to require insurers to disclose the premiums they charge on fossil fuel projects — so the public has an idea of how risky they are. The bill was approved by a state Senate committee with a bipartisan vote.

The Biden Administration has also signaled that its Treasury Department could require certain climate disclosures from the finance sector. An upcoming order from the White House is expected to require the Federal Insurance Office to study climate disclosures as well.

The Trans Mountain pipeline, which the Canadian government bought in 2018, stretches 1,150 kilometers, or more than 700 miles, from Edmonton to Vancouver, just above the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Its expansion is meant to increase oil exports to Asia.

The Trudeau Administration has faced intense political pressure over the project, which it acquired after Kinder Morgan threatened to walk away amid opposition from British Columbia. It has spent billions of public dollars buying and operating the pipeline, despite its stated climate commitments.

The type of oil from western Canada — mostly heavy crude, with high amounts of sulphur — is more complicated and expensive to refine than other types of oil. Trans Mountain has cited opposition from environmental advocates as one of the reasons it wants to keep insurers secret.

But activists point to a string of other difficulties the project has faced that could be making it harder to get insurance.

Robyn Allan, an economist and former president of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia who is an expert in underwriting, said if the company was having difficulty getting coverage, it wasn’t because of public pressure campaigns. It’s because the insurance industry would view a 68-year-old pipeline with a recent oil spill and a checkered safety record as a high-risk client.

In its letter to regulators, Trans Mountain argued that disclosing its insurers could result in a “material loss” to the company and “prejudice the competitive position of its insurers” because of “targeting and pressure” on insurance companies from groups opposed to the pipeline.

Trans Mountain did not respond to a request for comment. When the pipeline was reapproved by the Canadian government in 2019, it vowed to invest the money it earned from operating it into “Canada’s clean energy transition.”

The pipeline was also ordered to follow a set of 156 conditions, designed to mitigate a wide range of risks, from environmental issues like water quality and fish habitat, to marine shipping and effects on Indigenous communities.

In June 2020, as much as 190,000 liters of crude oil leaked from a failed compression fitting at one of Trans Mountain’s pump stations in Abbotsford, British Columbia, according to a review by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Some of the oil contaminated a nearby agricultural field.

Four months later, Samatar Sahal, a 40-year-old employee of one of Trans Mountain’s general contractors, died after being struck by equipment at a pipeline construction site. Then, in December, another contractor was “seriously injured” at the pipeline’s Burnaby terminal. Trans Mountain shut down construction for a few months and started up again in February after vowing to retrain workers and supervisors.

Allan also called the timing of Trans Mountain’s request to the Canada Energy Regulator “highly suspect.” The company filed its request to shield its insurers just after Indigenous youth with the Braided Warriors group had peacefully occupied the downtown Vancouver office building for AIG.

Zurich, a former insurer, has confirmed it does not intend to re-insure the pipeline, while two others, Munich Re, and HDI, will follow suit, according to environmental group STAND.earth.

The others — AIG, Chubb, Energy Insurance Mutual Limited, Liberty Mutual, Starr, Stewart Specialty Risk Underwriting Ltd and WR Berkley — either declined to comment or did not respond.

To the Tsleil-Waututh, who called themselves the “people of the Inlet,” the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is an existential threat to their way of life.

Aleck said the Tsleil-Waututh have worked tirelessly on restoring local ecosystems, cleaning up clam beds that they were recently able to successfully harvest and witnessing herring fish return and spawn, both for the first time in 60 years.

“To have the traffic of the tankers, or an oil spill, would just decimate all possible rehabilitation that we’ve done,” she said. “This project will just decimate everything.”

Trans Mountain has said it has signed 59 unique, confidential agreements to compensate Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, but critics say the company didn’t get consent from proper titleholders.

Judy Wilson, secretary treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band located east of Kamloops, maintains that the original pipeline was built through contested lands that were never ceded by Indigenous nations. She said the project should disclose its backers.

“When they’re impacting our territorial homelands like that, they should be transparent about who’s insuring it, and all aspects of the business,” Wilson said.

The Sunrise Project is a contributor to Floodlight.

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Emily founded Floodlight in 2021, after more than a decade as an environment reporter in Washington, D.C. She reported for The Guardian, Politico, E&E News and CQ Roll Call. emily@floodlightnews.org

Emily Holden/Floodlight