Ottawa offers financial backstop for Trans Mountain pipeline amid continued pushback in B.C.

OTTAWA — The Liberal government on Wednesday unveiled a financial backstop for the Trans Mountain pipeline, offering to reimburse developer Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. for financial losses that derive from B.C. Premier John Horgan’s “attempts to delay or obstruct the project.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau did not place a cap on how much would be provided to Kinder Morgan Canada if it fails to complete construction of its $7.4-billion pipeline expansion, but said Ottawa would only backstop any “financial loss that derives from (B.C.) Premier Horgan’s attempts to delay or obstruct the project.”

The government did not provide details around how it would distinguish between “politically motivated” losses and losses tied to market forces.

Morneau did not specify what kind of financial mechanism would be put in place to help Kinder Morgan recoup any costs, saying discussions were ongoing. He said such an indemnification against financial loss “would still be in place for another party,” and suggested that other private sector players might be interested in taking over Trans Mountain if Kinder Morgan decides to scrap the already-delayed pipeline. 

The move — putting public dollars behind a privately-driven infrastructure project — is the starkest evidence yet that Ottawa is keen to ensure the project reaches completion, just as it enters its most capital-intensive phase.

Kinder Morgan Canada stock was up 3 per cent to $17.27 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday morning.

Ottawa’s decision to intervene comes after Kinder Morgan Canada, the Canadian division of its Houston-based parent, announced on April 8 that it would halt all non-essential spending on the Trans Mountain pipeline barring assurances that it would not face further political resistance to the project. The company set a May 31 deadline to decide whether it would move ahead, and called on the B.C. government to stand down from its opposition to the pipeline.

The move prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to consider “legislative and financial” actions to push Trans Mountain ahead, following an emergency meeting between the B.C. and Alberta premiers, who have sparred for months over delays to Trans Mountain’s construction.

B.C. Premier John Horgan has said he would use all the tools at his disposal to block the project. In mid-April his government filed a reference to the provincial appeals court to determine whether British Columbia had legal authority to restrict shipments of oilsands bitumen across its territory.

That prompted Kinder Morgan Canada CEO Steve Kean to say the project “may be untenable for a private party to undertake” during a conference call last month. He had earlier said the company would require assurances it could “efficiently construct through British Columbia without the threat of additional or new requirements being imposed, or proposed, or announced, that would create further uncertainty.”

Richard Roberts, an analyst at Scotiabank based in New Orleans, LA., said in a phone interview Tuesday the backstop would “provide some level of assurance” for Kinder Morgan, but said various other risks could still hobble the pipeline.

“I still think they would need some more clarity from B.C. that they’re going to be allowed to do it,” he said.

The announcement comes as Trans Mountain enters the most capital-intensive phase of construction, making future delays increasingly costly, according to analysts. The company has already pushed back its completion date for the project by a year to December 2020.

“They’ve kind of gotten to the point now that it’s going to become very big dollars very soon,” Robert said. In April Kinder Morgan said it has already spent $1 billion on the project and plans to spend another $1.8 billion this year.

Observers have speculated over what would happen to the project if Kinder Morgan’s demands aren’t met, including whether Ottawa and Alberta would buy a position in the project, effectively nationalizing the formerly private asset.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters in April the province was considering a range of financial options to assist the project, “up to and including purchasing the pipeline outright if it were to come to that.” Ottawa, for its part, made no such claims.

Even so, such a move would still require an operator like Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. or TransCanada Corp. to take the reins, a move that David Galison, a Toronto-based analyst at Canaccord Genuity Corp. who covers Enbridge, says is unlikely considering that Kinder Morgan would first have to deem the project not worth the risk. However, Canadian midstream players likely would be keenly interested in a pipeline project that is already fully subscribed and has passed regulatory review.В 

“I’m sure that Enbridge would love to be able to take on a fully permitted project from Kinder Morgan,” said Galison, adding that the company would likely require solid assurances from Ottawa and from regulators that it could move ahead with the pipeline.

In a statement, Enbridge said it’s focused on the execution of its Alberta-to-Wisconsin Line 3 Replacement Program and other projects, “and we are not engaged in conversations about buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline or taking over the project as operator.”

Kinder Morgan’s decision to fold Trans Mountain into a Canada-based subsidiary was widely seen as an attempt to distance the company from the highly contentious asset, as well as reduce its significant project backlog.

“They’ve ring-fenced the risk around this,” said one person familiar with the project who asked not to be named.

It is unclear whether a new operator would be forced to re-apply for any National Energy Board approvals or whether building permits would be passed along to the new owner.

“The bottom line is that the NEB would have to review any requests from a regulatory oversight perspective,” said James Stevenson, the NEB’s head of communications on the Trans Mountain project. “And what that review would look like would depend on the details.”

Scotiabank’s Roberts said Kinder Morgan has every reason to move ahead with the project, which accounts for roughly half the Houston-basedcompany’s current backlog. But the company could still follow through on its ultimatum and abandon the project if snags persist, he said.

“I don’t think it’s posturing at all… they need assurances that they can get from point A all the way to point Z.”

The Trans Mountain expansion would nearly triple current capacity on the pipeline to 890,000 barrels per day, bringing heavy oil and refined products from northern Alberta to a Vancouver port.

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