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The absurdity of Canada’s oil pipeline woes

North America's oil pipelines

North America’s oil pipelines

Canada has a problem. Oil prices have got high enough and technology has advanced that a lot of oil that was trapped in less porous rocks is now suddenly quite attractive to extract. The problem is, it all lies in the middle of Canada. Well, not the geographic heart of Canada but suitably close enough.

Well, oil is liquid and the oil sands are a sludgier version but still flows, so the oil companies figured because they were getting more oil out of the ground, they’d use the same method they’d been using for decades – pipelines –  to get the oil from its source in the middle of Canada to the world’s refineries.

What they hadn’t banked on was the world had changed – suddenly they needed a ‘social license,’ and were going to be scrutinised by people with a strong interest in the environment and objectives in life that differed from theirs.

Now from looking at the above map, you can understand the bewilderment from the oil community over the proposal of a few benign pipelines. As you can see, North America is criss-crossed by pipelines – pipelines which have been in place and functioning for decades. In fact, from the birds eye view provided in this map, there are places where it appears almost like there are more pipelines than roads.

On that map, I drew a blue line representing approximately where Enbridge would like to build a pipeline to British Columbia’s coastline, so they can get their oil to lucrative markets in Asia as well as destinations down south, and a green line for the proposed Keystone pipeline from which the US can get some desperately needed oil for its refineries and wean itself somewhat off Middle Eastern oil.

But, the two projects represent the tip of Canada’s oil transportation woes. There is the proposed widening of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, the proposed pipelines north from Alberta through the North West Territories to get oil out that way to anxiously waiting ships, or the proposed eastern pipeline which was no sooner proposed and enthusiastically welcomed by a few towns who erroneously thought their constituents might like some jobs and infrastructure, before they had to do a hasty retreat and go meek and quiet as residents began to arc up.

Yes, that is the problem. After decades of quietly building pipelines to get the oil from Alberta to various destinations, “suddenly” there is a very noisy opposition. Not necessarily a well-informed opposition and at times, a quite misleading opposition. But its deafeningly noisy – and all rather ignores the current amount of pipelines available other than when it suits them to point out there has been spills in the past, therefore there will be in the future.

The proposed pipeline by Enbridge is under fire by environmental groups, American-funded NGO’s operating through Canadian environmental groups, First Nations people and generally anyone who drives a car, especially in Vancouver (everyone drives a car that apparently doesn’t use fossil fuel in Vancouver, darling…). To listen to these groups, it is abundantly clear that they believe that any pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat on B.C.’s coast will do the following:

  1. Leak endlessly so that basically all the oil will be spread in a one smooth oil patch stretching from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean – because after all, everyone KNOWS oil companies have no incentive to get their oil to market and make a profit – far better to leak the black gold all over B.C.’s countryside…
  2. Any droplets that actually make it to the coast will be safely put on single-hulled ships (kidding – all oil tankers on international waters now are double hulled because of a famous Alaskan accident) which will then be steered by drunken captains right for the very first rock (because there are no icebergs in the area) and smash into it, thus creating an oil disaster at sea now which will affect the coastal wildlife.
  3. The oceanic oil spill from the tanker will also cover the entire oceanic portion of the Great Bear Forest, which is several 1000km2 making the Exxon Valdez (Oops! Did I accidentally let slip with the name of the famous Alaskan incident?) look like a drop of cream in a tank of coffee.
  4. Will catastrophically increase CO2 emissions (we’ll ignore the 100+ years oil has been produced in the Middle East, the USA, Australia, Venezuela etc which led us to the current ‘catastrophic levels of CO2…)
  5. It’s ‘dirty oil.’

Now, I’m not going to argue with all the environmentalists points – one thing is for sure, Canada is woefully ill-prepared to deal with a severe oil spill at sea, something even Canada’s National Energy Board Joint Panel Review recognised that when it gave Enbridge 209 required conditions to go ahead with developing the pipeline. Interestingly, they also rather thoroughly rejected one of the environmentalists claims about CO2 emissions, stating:

that connections to oil sands development were not sufficiently direct to allow consideration of their environmental effects in its assessment of the project, other than in its consideration of cumulative effects. The Panel also concluded that downstream effects would be hypothetical and of no meaningful utility to the Panel’s process. The Panel considered emissions arising from construction activities, pipeline operations, and the operation of tankers in Canadian waters to be within the scope of its assessment.”

Similarly, Canada is being held at gunpoint by the US as environmentalists there think getting oil from Canada’s oil sands via the proposed Keystone pipeline is a bad thing because:

  1. President Obama should keep his promises to reduce the US’s dependence on fossil fuel.
  2. It’s ‘dirty oil.’
  3. Indirectly, Canada’s potential to mine and export enough oil to keep the world going in oil for a few more decades yet, means Canada is now solely responsible for all climate change, (we’ll ignore the fact they didn’t start coming into their own until the 1950’s with the rising exports of natural gas, well after the Middle East had established its dominance as a global supplier of fossil fuels, or that other countries continue to produce fossil fuel, including the USA – home to probably the greatest number of SUV-driving environmentalists on the planet…).

As far as the Keystone pipeline goes, I’d again refer you to the diagram above – do you REALLY think one or two or five or even 100 more pipeline is going to be so much more environmentally destructive than the 1000s of decades-old pipeline already criss-crossing the US from top to bottom, east to west?! And producing fossil fuels is a global effort so it is absurd to target Canada as being the sole supplier of past, present and future fuel – and CO2 emissions.

The Alternatives

Faced with such opposition from a public which seems deeply disconnected with where energy comes from in their daily life (I am all for alternatives if they are viable, but that is a whole other story for another day!), the oil companies began to wonder if there were alternatives to transporting the oil via pipeline from landlocked realms of Alberta to one of Canada’s 3 coastlines.

1. Trains

There was a brief period in 2013 when there was talk of increasing rail lines and having the oil move by train from Alberta to it’s various destinations.

Then a train carrying American shale oil blew up in Lac Magantic, Quebec and killed 47 people… (which is ironic as the American’s are so anti-Keystone, and yet it was “their” oil that blew up in Canada)

Since then, there have been numerous smaller accidents (ie, outside populated areas) which all highlight that trains have a rather troubling history of derailing or colliding with potentially unpleasant consequences if they happen to be carrying oil or gas. The results can be as minor (to human populations) as train derailing and pouring oil into a creek, to rail cars exploding in North Dakota after colliding with other rail cars.

In fact, it would seem the North Dakota oil is so highly explosive (something which the Canadian oil sands have not definitely not been branded with so far!), it’s even on the radar of US authorities. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration more or less unhappily pointed this out when they  issued a safety alert in early 2014, stating that “recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil

2. Ships

Shipping Canada's oilMore recently, to assuage the opponents of the Keystone Pipeline to the US, a brave soul suggest in a Canadian newspaper that the oil be  shipped via the Panama Canal to those thirsty Texan refineries.

Did I read that right, ‘shipped????!!!’

Which part of Canada’s enormous woes with new oil pipelines did that author miss the fact the oil is landlocked in the middle of the country and there is an issue getting it to any sea port?!

It would appear that the idea is to get it to the west coast – which would not be that unrealistic except Enbridge is under siege with developing its pipeline to Kitimat (as mentioned above), and Kinder-Morgan is under siege in trying to widen the existing 60 year old pipeline to Vancouver. While the Kinder-Morgan may not have the best safety record with respect to oil spills (third parties putting back hoes into their pipes, leaking storage tanks etc), the actual pipeline itself has been astonishingly environmentally sound over a 60 year period.

And let’s not forget that 100% of oil-transporting ships are run on fossil fuels so they are puffing out CO2 into the atmosphere as they do their circuitous route from the British Columbia coast to America’s southeast coast.

In conclusion…

I think we are ultimately going to move to a future where we rely on a mixed collection of energy sources to fuel our growing population. Even if the oil sands and shale gas etc all deliver on their promises, ultimately, sometime in the next 50 or 100 or 200 years, the human race is going to run out of economically extractable fossil fuel. It would be nice to transition to alternative fuel sources before we run out of fossil fuels of course! But that’s another tale…

For now, the environmental movements have to accept fossil fuels are still an integral part of our lives – theirs as well:

  • Would their movements be so effective if they couldn’t drive or fly to their protest sites (generally in vehicles powered by fossil fuels)?
  • Would they be able to communicate so effectively without the petroleum-derived products that help make their computers (plastics) and deliver the electricity (could be sourced from coal (most commonly), diesel, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, nuclear – but petroleum-derived products wrap the electric cables anwyay…) to keep the batteries powered?
  • Would they be able to prevent the world from starving if all farm equipment was no longer able to be propelled by fossil fuel?
  • Would they be able to arrive so stylishly and trendily in their fleece outerwear and synthetic underwear without the fossil fuel industry supplying the basic ingredients for such apparel?

I’d say the answer is No.

So if we have to be realistic and accept that until such time as we do have enough forms of energy to stop relying on fossil fuels for the majority of our energy requirements, the safest, most environmentally friendly way to probably move the fossil fuel around is via pipelines?

What do you think – please post your comments below!

About Sally


  1. Well written, thoughtful and comprehensive.

  2. Northern Gateway was rejected yesterday; its’ turning into a religious jihad virtually- maybe, just maybe, the fossil fuel party is drawing to an end ?

  3. The comment above refers (I assume) to a non-binding plebiscite the residents of Kitimat, Birtish Columbia voted on. Kitimat is the port where most of the exporting facilities would be built at the west end of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

    That said, Kitimat has reportedly got approximately 4,200 registered voters of which 1,793 opposed the development and 1,278 were for it. The media reports this as 58% against and 42% for, which in the realm of Canadian elections is actually outstanding in that (i) nearly 75% of the people registered to vote actually did (instead of the usual 20-30%), (ii) it is difficult to argue those in support were in the minority.

    However, you could also factor in the numbers of those who didn’t in which 43% were against, 30% were for it and 27% didn’t vote… A lot of room for hidden opinions!

    More at: CTV (
    or CBC (