By Rod Nickel
(Reuters) - Expansion of Canada's Trans Mountain oil pipeline accelerated on Tuesday just two weeks before a court hearing in British Columbia that will decide whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government can complete the project.
The proposal to nearly triple Trans Mountain's flow of crude to 890,000 barrels per day is one of three by the industry to expand pipelines extending from Alberta, where existing pipelines are congested, to U.S. refineries. TMX, as the project is known, moves crude to the British Columbia coast, where some shipments may reach Asian markets.
Canada is the world's fourth-largest crude producer, but struggles to get new export pipelines built over opposition from environmental activists that has forced the Alberta government to curtail production and prompted an exodus of foreign investors.
Federal and Alberta politicians on Tuesday marked the start of a new phase of construction near Edmonton, Alberta, along the pipeline's right-of-way.
"Encouraged to finally see pipe going in the ground," Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted. "There’s a long way to go, but this is good news and an important step forward."
After a legal delay, work resumed in late summer near Edmonton and in Burnaby, British Columbia, where the pipeline ends.
If all goes well, the project, which still requires permits in British Columbia, will be in service by mid-2022 or the third quarter of that year, Trans Mountain Chief Executive Ian Anderson said. Pipeline sections will be in the ground within weeks, he said.
Anderson said his construction schedule accounts for protests that may affect work sites. Trans Mountain will exercise its standing court injunction that bars protesters from disrupting construction, he said.
TMX's critics say the project is far from assured.
"What we’re witnessing is a lot of self-serving posturing," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, who opposes the project. "There still is substantial opposition to the TMX project."
The Federal Court of Appeal is scheduled to hold a three-day hearing in Vancouver, British Columbia, starting on Dec. 16. The hearing will consider challenges by six indigenous groups that the Canadian government did not sufficiently consult them on the project.
"We’re trying to hit every mark we can to make sure we can proceed with this project," said Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall)