Polite Canadians are easy prey for U.S. oil barons

I’ve learned a lot about compromise over the last few decades. Living in the United States for most of grade school and university, I would often feel uncomfortable in combative situations, wanting disagreements to end with a reasonable outcome where both sides came to an understanding. I eventually adapted, as one does, but the feeling never left me.

It wasn’t until I returned home to Canada that I realized this need for compromise wasn’t necessarily a quality unique to me. It was a cultural practice living deep down in my maple syrup-filled soul.

Canadians, in general, have an inherent need to compromise. We self-identify as reasonable people, especially when compared to our neighbours to the south, and have a tendency to accommodate rather than inconvenience. Some call it polite — we just call it being fair. So it comes as no surprise when I hear my fellow country folk, including our own government, telling people to give companies like Kinder Morgan a break — that pipelines are better than other modes of transport for oil, that Trans Mountain is the lesser of the evils and that Canada has to move forward on at least one pipeline project for the good of the economy.

By saying these things, people — like our Prime Minister — are appealing to our deepest values as good compromisers. Trudeau says we can protect the environment AND build pipelines? What a relief! Everyone wins. Phew.

The problem, though, is that compromise, by nature, means all involved agree to an adequately beneficial outcome. And typically, compromise is only something you can do with confidence when dealing with a person or group you trust.

So… Can we trust Kinder Morgan?

To answer that, we need to understand the company and its culture. Kinder Morgan was co-founded by now-billionaire Richard Kinder and his pal Bill Morgan. In case you missed it, Morgan and Kinder are ex-Enron executives, the American corporation that in the early 2000s was found guilty of extensive financial fraud, including stealing from their own employees. The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving thousands of their workers without jobs, health care or their hard-earned pensions. As it happens, Kinder Morgan Pipelines was formed out of Enron Liquids Pipeline, L.P., a tax shelter for Enron the company. 

By the time of Enron’s collapse, Kinder had already left his position as president of the company, but there are indications it was in rough financial shape at the end of his tenure and was already starting to get “creative” with how to hide their lack of profitability.

The ties still run deep, though, as Kinder Morgan has seen a plethora of ex-Enron executives hold various high ranking positions since its start. Kinder himself sat as CEO until 2015 when he stepped aside to become executive chairman and, of course, a shareholder. His replacement? None other than another former exec at Enron, Steven Kean who has been working his way up at Kinder’s company since he started in 2002 (shortly after his stint as Chief of Staff of Enron Creditors Recovery Corp.).

Whether or not you think Rich Kinder, or any one of his fellow former Enron-ers he has employed, had a direct role in that company’s devastating fraud, their business ethics are only a portion of what troubles me about Kinder Morgan.

Like almost all companies, Kinder Morgan exists for one reason: to make money. Oh, and to keep shareholders happy…by making them a lot of money. In fact, up until 2014, the company was registered as a Master Limited Partnership. This structure is like an invisibility cloak from paying corporate taxes — companies who only own infrastructure but don’t “produce” anything are allowed to instead parse out most of their profits to wealthy shareholders who then pay their income taxes (at a rate much lower than corporate taxes). This is what you might call shrewd business practices — finding loops holes and corners to cut in order to maximize profits. Apparently, Rich Kinder was known for this.

The fact that Kinder Morgan is out solely for itself and its shareholders seems to be a forgotten point in the conversation about the company’s intentions in Canada and their general trustworthiness. Could that be because of the millions of dollars the multinational pipeline company has in its ad budget they use to try to convince Canadians what a downhome, warm and fuzzy organization they are? And sure, this is capitalism. I get it. But there is something inherently wrong with putting the almighty dollar above the health and safety of human beings, including the very people you employ and claim to care about.

Yep, for Rich Kinder and his fellow stakeholders, this is about money. And the pursuit of collecting that money is just business — tearing up land is just business; treading on Aboriginal rights is just business; the inevitable layoffs of Albertans and British Columbians when oil prices tank is just business; financial uncertainty is just business; oil spills are just business — and good business, by the way. Kinder Morgan owns a majority stake in WCMRC, the company that has a monopoly on oil spill cleanup on the West Coast. That’s probably why they argued in the NEB review that oil spills can be “good” for the economy…

Also working against Kinder Morgan’s ability to compromise fairly is their current rocky financial path. Once laughing their way to the bank, they are now starting to feel the effects of a slumping oil market just like everyone else. That’s why they are determined to make Trans Mountain’s expansion work — because they need the money. This pipeline is like their golden goose, giving them one last shot to bring in tar sands cash as the oil market continues to edge closer to toilet bowl status. With recent drops in their stock price and increasing pressure from stockholders, they are also on the brink of pushing their construction budget past where most of their investors are willing to gothanks in part to the work of First Nations and British Columbians who have been exercising their democratic rights to stop this thing.

Simply put, they’re desperate. And desperate times usually lead to desperate measures — not trustworthiness.

It’s safe to say Kinder Morgan doesn’t care about Canadians — at least, not for the reasons they want us to think they do. Caring for struggling Albertans and British Columbians by providing them a few jobs is merely an accidental outcome of their operations, not their goal.

Kinder Morgan needs to win the trust of British Columbians if they want to compromise with us. But they have too many strikes against them. Their track record of cutting corners on safety and spill response does not bode well — especially the more than 60 spills their existing pipeline has caused in B.C. and violations continuing to pile up — and those are just the illegal infractions. Those don’t include any other shady yet apparently legal activity, like last year when they couldn’t report to the public whether or not they were using defective parts in their existing Trans Mountain bitumen pipeline. Mmmm, comforting.  

No doubt they’ll continue to try to create the illusion they are a champion of oil workers, that they care about Alberta industry and that their pipeline is a beacon of hope for the Canadian economy, and maybe some people will start to believe them. But the next time you find yourself being convinced by your reasonable inner Canadian that Kinder Morgan cares about our health, safety and economy, and that they deserve a “fair” shake, don’t forget there is a rich Texan, a billion dollar oil industry and our very own Premier, Christy Clark, pulling levers behind that curtain — and there is no win-win here. The only thing Kinder Morgan cares about is their bottom line.