When Justin Trudeau spoke to British Columbia residents in August on the campaign trail, he vowed to overhaul how Canada's National Energy Board approves pipeline projects — and give the community more of a say in the highly contentious Trans Mountain line that will course through the Rocky Mountains.
"No, they're not going to approve [Trans Mountain] in January because we're going to change the government," Trudeau said in the interaction caught on video. "And that process needs to be redone."
But that process wasn't redone. And this week, protesters in Burnaby, BC picketed outside a hotel while inside, hearings to decide whether Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline is in the public interest marched ahead in a ballroom that resembled a ghost town. More security guards and police officers attended the meetings than members of the public, thanks in large part to the same consultation process that Trudeau promised to overhaul. A ballroom dedicated to the National Energy Board (NEB) process was filled with mostly empty seats, apart from a handful of reporters and a smattering of "intervenors" — people the NEB deemed were directly affected by the pipeline.
Nearly 70 percent of Burnaby's 220,000 residents are against the pipeline expansion project, which they say risks major oil spills from increased tanker traffic. By allowing the hearings to continue, the city's mayor, councillors and everyday suburbanites are accusing Trudeau of breaking his promise during the election.
Although one of the most controversial pipeline proposals in Canada, and one that sparked tense protests and mass arrests in 2014, Trans Mountain still enjoys the support of some politicians outside of BC who hope it will carry the country's oil to international markets, in particular China.
The expansion of an existing Kinder Morgan pipeline would see a second line run from near Edmonton, Alberta to refineries in Burnaby, pumping 890,000 barrels of oil per day to international markets — almost three times as much oil as the previous pipeline, and more oil than the Keystone XL pipeline proposal.
During the election, Burnaby residents raised concerns that the NEB process was tilted in favor of the proponent, and on October 19, after a heated local race with a focus on the pipeline, Burnaby elected Liberal Terry Beech. In the days following the election, the new MP reiterated his previous comments to Burnaby Now, stating that "Kinder Morgan will have to go through a new, revised process."
But in early December, Liberal Minister for Natural Resources Jim Carr said that for "those projects that are currently under review, the proponents will not be asked to go back to square one."
Confronted with activist complaints ahead of this week's hearings, Carr's office reiterated that promise. "In the meantime," Carr's statement said, "the National Energy Board must continue to operate under its current mandate."
"To us, that's a broken promise," Burnaby councillor Sav Dhaliwal told VICE News. "I believe Prime Minister Trudeau has the responsibility, if you make a promise during a campaign, people vote for that."
Trudeau's comments helped him clinch seats in BC ridings, including Burnaby, the councillor said. "People voted for that, and it is up to the prime minister now to live up to that promise."
Burnaby city council sent a letter to Trudeau asking him to follow through with his promise to reboot the the approval process, but Dhaliwal said it's been two months and they haven't received a response yet.
But on Wednesday, Cheryl Cameron, a picketer outside the hotel with environmental group the Dogwood Initiative, said Trudeau should be given more time to act.
"No, I don't think the promise is broken yet," she said. "I think we need to give the government a chance." Cameron said picketers were hoping the federal government would signal they would redo the process before the hearings end January 29.
Environmental lawyer Eugene Kung attended the hearings inside the hotel behind her. "It's super interesting to see how empty the room is," he observed, noting that taxpayers are on the hook for the sparsely-attended proceedings.
"And part of the reason for that is the NEB itself has restricted entry into the hearings, so each intervenor can only have two people per day, unless they requested special permission. And I know for certain that some of the intervenors who asked for 10 people to come, for instance, or 15 were denied."
Under rules passed by the Conservatives, to be certified as intervenors, members of the public had to apply two years ago in an 11-step application to show they were directly affected by the Trans Mountain expansion, Kung said.
"So it's disappointing but not all that surprising that there aren't that many people there, because it's pretty hard to get in. It really takes away from this idea that it's a public hearing," he said.
Despite BC's popular opposition to the pipeline and the process weighing its costs and benefits, not everyone is against it. "This project is good for Albertans and Canadians," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley posted on Facebook last week. "It will create jobs, spur economic growth, and help fund our province's transition to a greener, less carbon-intensive economy on many levels."
Alberta's economic downturn, due to the tanking price of oil is taking its toll, but companies proposing pipelines to carry the province's oil to new international markets — instead of just the US, where demand has plateaued and local production is increasing — are banking on the market making a comeback in the long term. Only 2 percent of Canadian oil, which is largely landlocked, is being shipped to China now.
"Building pipelines to tidewater and to new markets, while at the same time taking action to curb emissions, are the two essential components required to diversify our economy, restore our prosperity and assert ourselves as one of the world's most progressive, responsible and forward-looking energy producers," Notley wrote.
Meanwhile in Burnaby, anti-Kinder Morgan sentiments aren't ending anytime soon. On Friday, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, which stands directly across the water from the terminal that would export Trans Mountain's oil, is scheduled to argue against the project in court. And in a town notorious for its mass arrests over the pipeline, demonstrators outside the hotel promised to step up their presence Saturday.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont