​The status of pipelines in Canada

Introducing a series of articles about pipeline development in Canada, written by graduates of the Masters of Earth and Energy Resources Leadership, Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University in summer 2018.

The series highlights the exceptionally dynamic social, political and environmental circumstances that now commonly accompany pipeline proposals in Canada, and seeks to help provide the layman with the facts that they need to arrive at their own conclusions.

In this series:

Canada has a long history of energy infrastructure development. Within six years of the 1947 Imperial Oil discovery near Leduc, Alberta, the Interprovincial and Trans Mountain pipelines were built, spanning the country. Construction of these pipelines occurred under the regulatory authority of the federal Board of Transport Commissioners (BTC) following a few days of hearings, with no public consultation or environmental review.

Perspectives of Canadians towards major energy projects have changed since the time of the BTC. Unease over the environmental impact of pipelines has grown from local concerns led by communities of Aboriginal peoples, to global concerns about the products that they move and their impact on climate change and environmental policy.

Regulatory and legal standards have evolved to address the changes in public sentiment; however, in Canada, this evolution has resulted in the emplacement of processes where project assessments require significant periods of time.

For example, in March of 2002, Enbridge announced preliminary plans for the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Regulatory review and the collection of comments from all stakeholders occurred between 2009 and mid-2014. On November 30, 2016 — nearly fifteen years after the initial plans were announced — federal cabinet finally ruled that Northern Gateway was not in the best interests of the country.

In September 2018, forty-two recipients of the Order of Canada sent an open letter to citizens, arguing that opposition to the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion was essential to battle the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Their emotional appeal is designed to sway the public to block pipeline development, and in the process, prevent any increase in oil exports from Canada. The order recipients are artists, activists, human rights defenders, among others, all residents of British Columbia. They are valued members of society who have contributed to the fabric of life in Canada, but do these individuals possess the necessary expertise to be considered an appropriate authority on complex issues such as pipelines?

They claim that they represent environmental stewardship, Aboriginal rights and Canada’s reconciliation effort. However, these are only some of the issues related to pipeline development, and they fail to consider the complete set of social, legal, economic and environmental consequences that are associated with Canada’s inability to deliver its resources to market. Individuals like the Order of Canada recipients offer next to no insight on pipeline alternatives, particularly in the near term, or how to manage increasing global energy requirements.

This has become an endemic problem during discussions about pipelines and their function in modern Canada. The pipeline debate is no longer a balanced discussion on what is best for the country. Instead, half-truths are used as arguments designed to scare citizens toward the political left or right. The arguments polarize instead of helping to provide the factual information that is required to achieve compromise and common ground. As a result, Canadians are largely energy illiterate, and they are no longer able to make informed, rational conclusions on domestic energy policy.

The single biggest issue associated with pipelines is scope. By its nature, pipeline infrastructure moves hydrocarbons from producing regions (principally the western provinces) across considerable distances to market (i.e., tidewater).

Currently, 96 percent of the 3.5 million barrels of oil that Canada exports on a daily basis is sent to the United States. This has created a trade imbalance with our southern neighbour which has been used for political maneuvering. This occurs despite the fact that a substantial portion of Canadian crude (principally bitumen) is processed in the U.S. Gulf Coast refinery system, and then subsequently exported to other parts of the world as refined product — a fact that seems lost on those that claim Canada is taking advantage of a trade imbalance. This is just one example of how politics cloud the issues surrounding pipelines.

Furthermore, pipeline infrastructure projects are long-term, requiring upwards of a decade for planning and construction. These processes run concurrently within a political timeframe of two to four years. Because of this, pipelines have become political pawns that are used by governments and creative special interest groups that use their knowledge of Canada’s legal and regulatory systems to advance their agendas through efforts that typically result in project delays.

Saying “yes” or “no” to a pipeline project without thoroughly discussing the alternatives becomes obstructionist. In the modern day of shrill Tweets, Facebook posts and internet half-truths, it is becoming more difficult to arrive at a logical conclusion on what Canada should do regarding pipeline policy. This is not an easy topic to discuss as there are many poorly thought-out opinions and hidden agendas.

Another issue is that all levels of government, and the politicians that lead them, feel the need to enter the debate often with only a handful of facts, even if they don’t know the entire story. The outcome of this is the creation of an environment where the average Canadian is incapable of understanding the true issues associated with pipeline projects.

Our hope is that the analyses provided in this JWN series will help to provide the layman with the facts that they need to arrive at their own conclusion.

In July 2018, graduate students from the geology department at Queen’s University completed analyses of the four major Canadian pipelines that are, or have been recently proposed. These include Northern Gateway, the Trans Mountain expansion, Keystone XL, and Energy East.

These analyses serve as a snapshot in time regarding the status of these projects as of summer 2018. In the time that has passed since the articles in this series were written, several announcements have been made resulting in a change to project status.

For example, in June 2019, federal cabinet approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for a second time, and in July 2019, a legal challenge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval of Keystone XL was launched in Montana.

By comparing the 2018 status with where we are today, the exceptionally dynamic social, political and environmental circumstances that now commonly accompany pipeline proposals in Canada is highlighted.

These articles are designed to inform, but not to sway the reader. Facts about each project are presented, as well as a discussion of their history and opposition. Special effort was made to communicate the substantial volume of information associated with each project in a succinct manner that is easily digestible by the general public.

Finally, each article concludes with an opinion piece where project facts are incorporated into a neutral assessment of the respective pipeline proposal. Please note that these opinions are independent and do not reflect the values of Queen’s University, or the author’s current or former employers.


Access full papers by the MEERL graduates:

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