A ban on large gatherings or protests due to the COVID-19 pandemic creates optimal conditions for pipeline construction, according to Alberta’s energy minister.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage says the ongoing pandemic is a “great time” to build a pipeline, because people aren’t able to gather to protest pipeline construction.
Savage made the comments when asked about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on a podcast released Friday by the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors.
“Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people, so let’s get it built,” Savage said.
While host John Bavil chuckled at the comment, Savage reiterated she was optimistic about the expansion project, which has already completed 57 per cent of construction on its phase one stretch heading west from Edmonton.
“It’s moving along. I feel very very confident about Trans Mountain moving forward,” she said.
Most provinces have had strict restrictions on public gatherings in place since mid-March. While some restrictions have lifted in Alberta, there’s still a ban on gatherings over 50 people, and any group is subject to physical distancing of at least six feet between people.
Pipeline protest problems
Several pipeline projects championed by the Alberta government, including Trans Mountain, the Keystone XL pipeline expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipeline expansion, have faced mass protests in the past year.
On the podcast, Savage said pipeline opponents have been so successful in delaying projects because they’ve “outsmarted” the industry.
“The activists have been so effective because the industry has been so ineffective,” Savage said. “They outsmarted the entire industry […] they got ahead of everyone.”
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Savage’s spokesman says in an email to the Canadian Press that the minister respects the right to lawful protest. Kavi Bal added that the current restrictions on public gatherings benefit no one, including pipeline proponents.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has championed stronger restrictions on protests, even before the pandemic. Earlier this year, he criticized anti-pipeline protesters aligned with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to Coastal GasLink pipeline as “champions of wokeness” and “leftists engaged in illegal activity.”
His government’s first bill of the spring session aimed to introduce sweeping penalties for anyone who gathers on what the government defines as “critical infrastructure.”
But earlier this month, Kenney said he was considering altering some pandemic-related gathering restrictions in order to allow anti-lockdown protesters who maintain physical distancing to gather without facing repercussions from law enforcement.
“The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental right that includes both freedoms of speech and assembly,” Kenney said in a May 11 statement.
Work camp outbreaks
Alberta’s designation of oil and gas as an “essential service” during the pandemic has also been controversial, due to outbreaks at several work camps and concerns that pipeline construction could bring the virus to remote areas.
A mid-April outbreak at Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine northeast of Fort McMurray spawned over 100 cases across Western Canada.
A second outbreak was reported at Horizon oilsands mine camp operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. last week, with at least five confirmed cases of COVID-19.
As of Monday, Alberta has recorded 6,860 cases of COVID-19 and 135 deaths.
With files from the Canadian Press.