Pipelines: friend, foe, or somewhere inbetween?

The odds are that if you live in BC and have consumed any news in the last five or more years, you know what a pipeline is. You are also likely aware that they are used to transport crude oil or natural gas to communities across Canada (and parts of the United States). You may have also heard about certain groups protesting against pipeline construction or expansion.

But just how familiar is the average Canadian with pipelines? And more importantly, what are the facts?

First, a brief history. Perhaps to the surprise of many (myself included), pipelines have been used to transport fossil fuels in Canada since the 1850’s. The first Canadian pipeline was built in 1853 to transport crude oil to Trois Rivieres, Quebec and was the longest pipeline in the world at 25 kilometers at that time. However, it was not until the late 1940’s when pipeline use really took off. Leduc Alberta began developing vast reserves of crude oil and natural gas. Today there are more than 840,000 kilometers of pipelines in Canada, with most provinces having significant pipeline infrastructure in place.

To say that the history of the Canadian pipeline industry is complicated would be an understatement. There is an abundance of news stories involving the Canadian pipeline industry. There was the widely-debated Keystone XL pipeline which would have run from Alberta to Nebraska; Canadian regulators approved the project in 2010 but it was ultimately rejected by then-US President Barack Obama. Some will also recall the dismissal of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline in 2016, or the federal government’s $4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018. In February of 2020, country-wide protests against the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in Northern BC have garnered considerable media attention. It’s clear that there is a lot of controversy around pipelines in this country. So, why all the hubbub?

For starters, it should be noted that these are highly complex issues, and each situation possesses its own unique set of facts. With that said, the majority of pipeline-related issues in Canada tend to fall into one (or more) of three broad areas – environmental impact, economic impact, and land and title rights. According to federal government organisation, Natural Resources Canada,3 pipelines are a safe, reliable, and environmentally friendly way of transporting oil and gas, with an average of 99.999% of oil transported on federally regulated pipelines moving safely each year. This is no doubt a popular statistic among those whose livelihoods are dependant on pipeline projects.

The federal government’s National Energy Board (NEB) says that, of the approximate 1.3 billion barrels of oil transported in Canadian pipelines each year, about 1,084 barrels were spilled per year between 2011 and 2014. All of these figures paint a seemingly optimistic picture about pipeline safety in Canada in the recent years. People like Kenneth P. Green, an environmental scientist and Senior Fellow at the right-wing think tank Fraser Institute, admits that pipeline accidents are “unfortunate and regrettable,” but after conducting a lengthy study, concludes that “pipelines are without a doubt the safest way to transport oil and gas.”

Others, however, like former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, have been critical of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in particular, saying that it directly belies Canada’s climate action goals. May has referenced a report by the Royal Society of Canada, a group of academics which assesses societal best practices, which suggests a lack of knowledge around the ability to clean up spills in certain environments.

Regarding the issue of land and title rights; Canada has a contentious history of disputes between First Nations, provincial and federal governments. Most people will likely be familiar with the term ‘unceded lands’, which refers to land which was never signed away by the Indigenous people who lived there before Europeans settled in North America. The Constitution Act recognizes and affirms Indigenous rights as rights related to the historical occupancy and use of the land by Indigenous peoples. Over the years, there have been many cases related to Indigenous title rights before the courts, and many of them involve pipelines. This is a complex subject with many moving parts and is likely to be a source of contention for some time.

There are also situations in which First Nations disagree amongst each other over territorial rights. We need only look back to the February 2020 protests as an example involving hereditary chiefs and elected band council chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation in Northern BC. The head chiefs opposed the building of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which is set to carry natural gas through a section of unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The elected band councils within the Wet’suwet’en Nation supported the project. Hereditary chiefs have been asserted that they had responsibility over the 22,000 square kilometres of unceded territory.

Now then, as the title of the article asks, are pipelines a friend, foe, or somewhere in between? It most certainly depends on who you ask! In my limited and humble view, pipelines fall somewhere in between, in that they offer a means of energy transportation preferable to other methods that use tankers or rail. With that said, I believe we should focus our efforts on more sustainable and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, with an aggressive, yet realistic approach. In doing so, hopefully we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and pipelines.

1 Baker, N. (2020). Pipelines in Canada.

2 Natural Resources Canada. (2016). Pipelines Across Canada.

3 Natural Resources Canada. (2020). Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Concerning Federally-Regulated Petroleum Pipelines in Canada.

4 Green, K.P., & Jackson, T. (2020). Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and gas. Fraser Institute.

5 The Royal Society of Canada. (2015). The Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into Aqueous Environments.

6 Baker, R. (2020, February 26). A who’s who of the Wet’suwet’en pipeline conflict. CBC News.

7 Jang, B., & Kirkup, K. (2020, March 10). Wet’suwet’en matriarch calls for hereditary governance to reflect views of elected councils. The Globe and Mail.