In recent years, unprecedented failure of major newly proposed pipeline projects has halted Canada’s ability to increase the flow of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to refinement plants or markets for export. Given Canada’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels before 2030, this has been welcomed by many as a positive step in the right direction. So how did this come about?
Feel free to skip ahead to the section entitled “Environmental Concern as a Major Cause of Pipeline Rejection” (spoilers) if you’d like to pass over any background. Otherwise, read on to learn more about pipelines and the Tar Sands in general and about Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, and Energy East.
Introduction to Pipelines
Oil pipelines are made from steel or plastic tubes that are normally (but not always) laid underground. Pump stations situated along the line move the oil through the pipelines.
By 2012, almost 51,500 km of new North American pipeline were being planned or under construction, due to the high growth in demand. In Canada we have a total of 41,855 km of pipelines carrying oil and liquids.
Compared to railways, pipelines have a lower cost per unit and higher capacity. They are also reputed to be safer than carrying the oil via tanker or rail. The Lac-Megantic rail disaster, for instance, occurred in 2013 when a freight train carrying crude oil derailed and subsequently exploded in the Eastern Townships town.
Furthermore, oil production on the increase. By 2040, for instance, crude oil production is projected be 56% higher than it was in 2014. Canada has reached a “transport bottleneck” where it produces more oil than it can easily transport. Without additional pipelines to move the product, the price of Canadian crude oil is currently plummeting while US competitors enjoy recent increases in global prices.
This is due in large part to the fact that certain select pipeline proposals have been declined of late. Opposition to these pipelines stems from concern over the inherent risks of building and operating them.
Risks of pipelines
Accidents resulting in damage or injury, such as explosions or ruptures, are not totally uncommon. In the ten-year period 2006-2015 there were an average of 8 accidents per year, occurring most frequently at compressor stations and gas processing plants, but with many occurring along transmission lines or at other junctions along the route.
Oil spills are another risk of pipelines. A leak or spill below the ground, particularly if accompanied by rainfall, can result in toxic compounds dissolving in water and percolating into groundwater systems, where they are notoriously difficult and expensive to be cleaned out. Benzene, one of these toxic compounds, is not only carcinogenic to humans but can cause a myriad of health problems.
The detection of a spill is only as good as the monitoring system—many leaks can go undetected if they are small enough, but can accumulate over time, causing damage to health and to the ecosystem. The catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill of March 1989, for example, dumped 41.8 million liters of crude oil into Prince William Sounds off the Alaskan coast, killing 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 orca whales, and a countless fish. In 2007, nearly 100,000 liters of oil still remained trapped in the Sound.
In 2016, the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development submitted a report to the House of Commons stating that the National Energy Board (the Canadian federal body charged with regulating pipelines that cross provincial boundaries or cross the US border) did not systematically monitor companies whose projects had been approved. This means that there is no guarantee that companies are actually complying with the approval conditions, such as maintenance schedules or equipment updates, issued by the NEB upon approval of a project.
Even in the absence of an accident or spill, though, the stakes are high. The Conference of the Parties of 2016 led to the drafting and eventual ratification of the Paris Agreement, an ambitious international commitment to limit global warming to “well below 2∞C” above pre-industrial levels and to endeavor to prevent it from reaching 1.5∞C.
These aren’t arbitrary targets—the 2∞C threshold has long been acknowledged in the scientific community as the point beyond which the consequences to the climate system and to ecosystems will be dangerous, rapid, and irreversible. The 1.5∞C target, however, is highly preferable since the consequences of a 2∞C world are unacceptable to those who are most vulnerable and at risk to sea level rise, drought, and extreme weather. Currently, we’ve already contributed to 1.02∞C of warming relative to pre-industrial levels.
Only immediate and drastic action to curb our global emissions from fossil fuel combustion, land use change, and agriculture will allow us the slightest chance of meeting these targets. Building additional pipelines to increase our capacity for delivering and burning fossil fuels is a giant step in the wrong direction.
Particularly if we’re talking about oil from Alberta’s tar sands, in which case every risk outlined in this section is drastically heightened.
The tar sands (or “oil sands”) are the third-largest known oil reserve on the plant, and hold 97% of Canada’s untapped oil. By 2040, tar sands (or “oil sands”) production is projected to account for 79% of all oil production in Canada, as opposed to 59% in 2014.
Situated in Northern Alberta, and located on or adjacent to the traditional territories of numerous First Nation communities the Canadian tar sands produce approximately 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day and cover an area the size of New York state.
The tar sands differ from regular oil extraction projects in several ways. One is that bitumen, the fossil fuel extracted here, is not a conventional crude oil but rather requires heating or dilution in order to flow. At the tar sands, this requires the injection of massive amounts of steam inputs to render the bitumen obtainable for extraction. Afterward, large volumes of hydrocarbon are needed to dilute the oil for transport, using enormous quantities of water.
The thickness of crude bitumen earns it a classification by petroleum geologists as “extra-heavy crude oil” which is capable diffusing into water. It is the most detrimental to ecosystems after a spill because it will sink and disperse, increasing exposure of aquatic wildlife to its toxic effects and making clean-up nearly impossible.
Additionally, the bitumen in Alberta is located near enough to the surface that traditional drilling operations are unsuitable. The oil is therefore extracted through open-pit mining, an intensely destructive practice that severely alters the land and water and has many toxic waste products. The extraction takes place over 4,800km2 of the Athabasca region.
Finally, the bitumen extracted here is estimated to produce 14-20% more emissions of greenhouse gases than other conventional oil when burnt, making this a more intensive contributor to warming. It was estimated in early 2017 that a full 16% of the world’s remaining carbon budget (the amount of carbon that we are able to burn without exceeding 1.5∞C) would be depleted from the production and combustion of Canadian bitumen.
Over the course of the current decade, there have been three particularly contentious proposed pipeline projects originating in the tar sands that have been met with fierce opposition.
The proposed Keystone XL project, of which Trans Canada is the proponent, is part of the existing Keystone pipeline system. Keystone is 4,324 km in length and runs from Alberta into Manitoba before taking a southward turn down to Nebraska after which it delivers to several terminals in the US.
The proposed Keystone XL route begins in Alberta and ends in Nebraska for a total of 1,897 km. Rather than run through Saskatchewan and corner in Manitoba, however, the route would be more direct and run straight through Montana.
The National Energy Board approved the project in 2010, but president Barack Obama did not issue his presidential permit because the project was not believed to decrease gas prices, create long-term jobs, or reduce energy dependence. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts were expected to be high in the fragile Sandhills ecosystem and public opposition to the project in the communities situated along the route was high. Obama officially rejected Keystone XL in 2016. In March 2017, however, Donald Trump gave his presidential approval for the project.
On November 16 2017, nearly 800,000 liters of bitumen leaked from the tar sands leaked from the existing Keystone pipeline in South Dakota. The volume of this spill was 250x higher than the April 2016 spill at a nearby point along the same pipeline, which took two months to clean up. In spite of the catastrophe, Nebraska gave its approval for the proposed route of Keystone XL.
Several days later, however, a federal judge ruled to allow a lawsuit brought forward by environmentalists over President Trump’s approval, ignoring President Trump’s attempts to have the case dismissed. These environmentalist groups claim that President Trump relied on outdated environmental impact assessments to support his approval of Keystone XL. Should it be proven in court, this approval could be reversed.
The Northern Gateway project, proposed by Enbridge, was to be comprised of 1,177km of pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat British Columbia, at the head of the Douglas Channel. Enbridge filed the application in 2010, triggering the formation of federal Joint Review Panel to take the application into consideration and to commission a complete impact assessment.
The oil, destined for export, would then have been shipped by up to 220 tankers per year through the narrow, intricate channels of the coast within the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact tract of temperate rainforest in the world. First Nation communities situated along the tanker’s proposed route, such as the Gitga’ata of Hartley Bay, whose traditional lands and waters stood to be devastated by a single spill, stood in firm opposition to the project. Despite this opposition being voiced in Joint Review Panel hearings along the coast between 2012 and 2013, the project was approved by the National Energy Board and Conservative federal government in 2014, contingent on their compliance with 209 conditions.
In June 2016, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the province had failed in its duty to consult with coastal First Nations and overturned federal approval of the project. In November 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two new pipeline projects but officially terminated Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, citing the intricate and hugely important ecosystem of the Great Bear Rainforest as the primary reason. This news triggered a wave of celebration among coastal inhabitants but was met with disappointment from many of the communities situated along the pipeline’s route, who had been poised to benefit from its construction.
Energy East, the 4,500 km pipeline project proposed by TransCanada, would have originated in Alberta and ended at refineries in Eastern Canada. The project would have necessitated new pipeline to be constructed in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick and would pass through countless waterways, including the St. Lawrence river in Quebec.
TransCanada filed its application for approval of Energy East in October 2016, and spent the ensuing years planning the details of the projects and fulfilling the requirements for public hearings in affected communities. In October 2017, however, the company withdrew its application and announced the termination of Energy East.
Speculation on the reasons behind the move centered on a newly introduced federal energy policy to consider both upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions, thereby taking into account not only the environmental impact of the construction and operation of the pipeline but the emissions from the eventual burning of these fossil fuels. Incidentally, these emissions were projected to equal an additional 236 million tons of carbon to our atmosphere each year.
However, another highly likely reason is that the price of oil has been on the decrease and that Trans Canada’s cost-benefit analysis could no longer support the decision to move ahead.
Environmental Concern as a Major Cause of Pipeline Rejection
Above, we’ve explored three different projects with three slightly different reasons for termination. In the case of Keystone XL (which is currently technically going forward but which did suffer several near-fatal setbacks and which still faces a court challenge over its approval), the perceived benefits were not worth the environmental risks.
Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, meanwhile, was challenged by the Supreme Court over the government’s failure to consult with its First Nations and eventually rejected by the federal government because the risks to the environment were too high.
TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, on the other hand, was terminated by the company itself before even receiving approval, a move that seemingly had more to do with cumbersome regulations and with the bottom line than with our shared environment.
But does it really, though? The fact that new energy policy requires impact assessments to take into account both upstream and downstream emissions is reflective of a global awareness since the Conference of the Parties in Paris that we are running out of time to reverse our inertia in relation to our anthropogenic emissions.
Meanwhile, the fact that the price of oil decreased by 14% in the first half of 2017 is not a separate issue from its environmental impact, but rather an indication that supply might be outstripping demand as available oil reserve become “stranded assets” in the eyes of investors who have no intention of buying a product that will become increasingly regulated.
Indeed, new reports show that US $20 billion have been divested from fossil fuels over the past two years as a direct result of the risk of climate change.
Clearly, a message is being received by the government and by these companies.
Who is sending it?
The Chorus of “No’s”
Scientists are, unsurprisingly, one of the communities providing a dearth of motivations for us to move away from fossil fuels immediately. Perhaps something that is surprising is how vocal they’ve been about it, as thousands of researchers break away from traditions of total impartiality to issue desperate warnings about what they know to be coming our way if we don’t step up in our endeavors to limit global warming, and soon.
Local communities have also been pivotal in slowing the approval of pipelines. “Not in my backyard” thinking can be a powerful motivating force to get local citizens to participate in hearings, panels, and protests to voice concerns over impacts to their drinking water, biodiversity, and waterways. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, approved in 2016 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, continues to spark activism and opposition by communities on the grounds that it will irrevocably alter the landscape, poison their waterways, and contribute to climate change.
Environmental, social, and climate justice groups have also been important in spreading the message about the risks inherent in these pipelines. Groups like Greenpeace and Eco Justice fight to organize people around important issues, share information with the public, and use direct action and legal battles to stand in opposition to extractive projects and the transportation of fossil fuels.
Of crucial importance in the fight against pipelines– our front-line heroes and climate justice leaders– are the indigenous communities who leverage their right to governmental consultation in order to protect the lands and waters that stand to be affected by pipelines and that provide the bedrock on which their culture and survival are based.
Public opposition to Keystone XL, made up of ranchers and Indigenous communities situated along the pipeline’s proposed route in the US, as well as the Indigenous Environmental Network and Canadian Indigenous communities, contributed to President Obama’s initial reluctance to lend his presidential permit to the pipeline in 2010.
Also in the US, the Standing Rock Sioux in Northern Dakota, alongside many hundreds of allies, battled it out over a period of several months against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that would travel beneath the lakes and rivers that provide their drinking water. Between September 2016 and February 2017, they faced unthinkable violence at the hands of the police force while peacefully protesting the pipeline that could, in an instant, rob them of their continued survival on their traditional lands.
As with Keystone XL, the Dakota Access pipeline was advanced by an executive action by President Trump in early 2017. Similarly, however, the decision has been subject to legal scrutiny due to an overall lack of adequate consideration of environmental impacts, and the Standing Rock Sioux won a legal victory in June 2017 when the courts ordered a new environmental assessment. In the meantime, however, the Dakota Access pipeline transports thousands of barrels of oil beneath Lake Lakota every day.
In Canada, over 130 First Nations have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, a pledge to prevent Northern Gateway or other pipeline projects in British Columbia, in recognition that the Fraser River and its 1,400 km of productive salmon breeding grounds is key to supporting entire ecosystems along and branching out from its course. Hundreds testified at Joint Review Panel hearings and hundreds more took part in protests, with Chief Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council promising that “we are the wall that Enbridge and Harper cannot pass”.
And the National Energy Board’s policy requiring Energy East to include the climate costs of their proposed pipeline’s emissions, rather than just its construction and operation? Over 100,000 messages were sent to the NEB demanding that this policy be put in place, and Indigenous groups in Eastern Canada organized tirelessly to stand in strong and unwavering opposition to the project.
The best part, though, is that none of the groups mentioned here– scientists, local communities, environmental justice organizations, or indigenous peoples– are operating separately from each other. These highly-overlapping groups have come together to work in solidarity with one another and to form a unified voice that transcends geographical distances, a resounding and definitive “no” to anything that threatens our collective lands, waters, and climate. As the tide of extraction and destruction slowly shifts, and victories big and small begin to emerge from the rubble, this network of people is responsible for safeguarding our shared future and the future of generations to come.
Real change is within reach, and it is only as strong as the voices that demand it.
What are some of the ways that you can get involved locally to join the fight for a clean environment and a stable climate?
Author Naomi Klein states in her book ”No is Not Enough” that we need not only to stop large-scale extraction projects in their paths, but also to provide a vision for an alternative future that is powerful enough to replace our dying system. Can you think of any examples of what this might look like?