Canada 150: ​Canada’s first long-distance oil pipeline took less than two years to make happen

Image: Government of Alberta

Often, the first time a new type of project is executed is its most challenging and time consuming. This is not the case for oil pipelines that stretch across Canada’s provinces.

The time between incorporation of Interprovincial Pipe Line Co.—the predecessor of energy infrastructure giant Enbridge—and the first shipment of oil on Canada’s first long-distance oil pipeline was one year and eight months.

Compare that to the process TransCanada is currently navigating for its proposed Energy East project, for which began consultation began in the first quarter of 2013 and oil shipments are expected after 2021.

Interprovincial Pipe Line Co. was incorporated on April 30, 1949, essentially as a division of Imperial Oil, noted historian Robert Bott in Mileposts: The Story of the World’s Longest Petroleum Pipeline, which was published in 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of the construction start of the 1,800-kilometer initial leg of the pipeline.

Like the railway linking Canada’s eastern and western provinces, it was in many ways a nation-builder.

In the 1940s, there were few ways to refine the increasing volumes of crude being produced in Alberta, chiefly in the area overlying the Devonian Reef stretching from Leduc to Redwater.

Imperial had two refineries in Alberta—one in Calgary built in the 1920s and another near Edmonton built in the 1940s, but growing production demanded transportation to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and Ontario.

Since Imperial was one of the largest crude oil producers in Alberta, it played a significant role in the genesis of the Interprovincial Pipeline, said Bott.

Initially, the pipeline was planned as a 450-mile connection between Edmonton and the Co-operative Refinery in Regina, but that became just the first leg.

“The development of the Redwater fields created a need to increase the capacity of the pipeline and to extend it to the Great Lakes,” said Bott. “It was a hectic time, as Imperial’s oil reserves grew from 27 million barrels to 608 million barrels between 1947 and 1950.”

But the company faced a steel shortage in the wake of the Second World War, required project financing and political support.

Steel supplies started to grow, and federal Industry Minister C.D. Howe modeled the Pipeline Act after the Railway Act. It was passed on April 30, 1949.

Prior to the construction of Interprovincial, Canada’s largest commercial pipeline was a 270-kilometre link from Turner Valley to Calgary, although during the Second World War the short-lived 2,650-kilometre Canol Pipeline was built to link Norman Wells, Northwest Territories with Alaska to support U.S. military operations.

After its scope was expanded to stretch from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin, the Interprovincial Pipeline would run 1,800 kilometres.

A Calgary-based construction company owned by the Mannix family and construction giant Bechtel won the contract to build the system.

Interprovincial dealt with 2,100 landowners in order to gain rights-of-way to the 1,300-kilometre initial Canadian section, while the company’s Lakehead Pipeline division was responsible for obtaining the rights-of-way needed for an additional 500-kilometre link to Superior.

Construction began in April 1950 and, remarkably, in spite of its length and “despite the fact it was one of the wettest years on record,” according to Bott, the project was completed and first oil shipped in December of that year.

Given the tortuous approval process major pipeline projects need to take now, that shows how times have changed, said Bott.

The project also had commercial success.

“The entire pipeline, which included seven pumping stations, was built for 14 per cent less than the initial cost estimate of $85 million,” he said.

It lowered the cost of transporting that crude, previously done by rail and ships, from $1/bbl to 25 cents/bbl.

Soon after completion of the Edmonton to Superior stretch, another 250-kilometre link was added to connect to the refinery complex near Sarnia, Ont. Canada’s oil industry had entered a new era.

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