Nearly 160 years ago, in 1853, what was probably the longest pipeline in the world at the time was built to carry natural gas about 25 kilometres into Trois Rivières to light street lamps. A decade later, one of the world's first crude oil pipelines was built right here in Canada, connecting the Petrolia oilfield in southwestern Ontario with the emerging refining hub at Sarnia.
Over the next 80 years or so, however, pipeline construction slowed in Canada, and by 1947, when Alberta emerged on the world oil stage with the Leduc No. 1 discovery, only three Canadian oil pipelines were active: one moved oil from Turner Valley to Calgary; another brought imported crude from Maine to Montreal; a third supplied the Sarnia refining hub with oil produced in the United States mid-continent region. Gas pipelines were even more scarce: Canadian Western Natural Gas built its Bow Island pipeline to Calgary in 1912, and 10 years later, a line was laid from fields around Viking in northern Alberta to Edmonton.
But the discovery of oil at Leduc by Imperial Oil--and a host of other finds around central Alberta in the following years--brought new demands for infrastructure to move all this Black Gold to market. In 1950, Interprovincial Pipeline Limited (which many of you now know as Enbridge Inc.) got the oil moving with its first line from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin. Three years later, the Trans Mountain Pipeline (it's now owned and operated by Kinder Morgan) began delivering Alberta crude to Vancouver, where it fed a small refinery market in the Lower Mainland and across the border in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. The same year, IPL extended its line from Superior to Sarnia.
In the 60 years since, various projects have come along, to bolster what was already there or to provide access to new supply basins, like the Norman Wells field in the Northwest Territories. Today, about 825,000 kilometres of pipelines criss-cross Canada, moving three million barrels a day of crude oil and liquids and 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.
And you know what? Until recently, we never even thought about pipelines. They've always been there, they will always be there, and they remain the safest and most efficient way of moving oil and gas to market. High-profile exceptions (Enbridge's Michigan leak two summers ago, for example) not withstanding, pipelines hardly ever leak (two litres were spilled for every million litres transported through pipes between 2002 and 2009, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association says) and so we hardly ever talk about them. Until now.
With Barack Obama's (temporary) trashing of Keystone XL earlier this year, the storm of controversy that has erupted over Enbridge's Northern Gateway project and even the stirring of discontent that is emerging in the wake of Kinder Morgan's announcement this week that it had more than enough shipper support to justify doubling the capacity of the Trans Mountain line from Edmonton to Vancouver, pipelines are suddenly the topic du jour on social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, where environmentalists, economists, political junkies and erstwhile social commentators are all adding their two cents to a debate that seems to go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The goal of most who are tweeting or facebooking about pipelines is to get the pipelines shut down--they think that if they do that, the coastal waterways will remain pristine, the inland rainforests of British Columbia will remain untouched, and, oh yes, the massively ugly and evil oilsands will finally have to shut down. After all, with no way to get the dirty oil to market, there will be no incentive to continue developing the oilsands.
But here's the rub: there's a better chance that a snowball will survive five minutes in hell than the oilsands will shut down if Northern Gateway, or Trans Mountain or Keystone XL are blocked. In the meantime, rail companies are quickly ramping up their capacity to carry crude oil--whether from Alberta's oilsands or Idaho's Bakken--to thirsty refiners from Chicago to the Gulf Coast.
These plans seem to be flying completely under the radar of the Greens, whose main complaint about pipelines is the environmental damage that might result from a leaky pipeline. But I shudder to think of the mess that will be left behind the first time one of these 100-car crude unit trains runs off the tracks. And to borrow an oft-used phrase from the Green Grinches: it's not a question of if, it's a question of when.
-- Dale Lunan, Editor