Line 3 pipeline Enbridge

The mega oilsands pipeline you’ve never heard of

As Canada fights over Trans Mountain, Enbridge’s most expensive project — Line 3 — inches towards completion

It’s the largest project in the history of Enbridge, itself the largest oil and gas pipeline company in North America. If completed as planned in mid-2019, it will boost oilsands export capacity by 375,000 barrels per day — over half of what the Trans Mountain Expansion will add.

But it’s likely you’ve never heard of Line 3.

“A lot of people don’t even know it exists,” said Laura Cameron, a community organizer with the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, in an interview with The Narwhal. “There just hasn’t been very much conversation around it.”

The Line 3 Replacement Program, or Line 3 for short, spans almost 1,700 kilometres and transports diluted bitumen from the oilsands from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin.

Due to the age and jeopardized quality of the existing pipeline, capacity of Line 3 has been cut in half. Installing a new and slightly wider pipe means that the company can return it to original levels.

In an era of hotly contested oilsands pipelines, Line 3 hasn’t received much attention.

“They wanted this one to happen quietly and under the radar,” said Adam Scott, senior advisor at Oil Change International, in an interview with The Narwhal.

The Line 3 replacement project: what you need to know

On the Canadian side, Line 3 runs from near Edmonton to the Manitoban bordertown of Gretna, crossing Saskatchewan near Regina on the way.

Once it crosses the 49th parallel, the pipeline travels through the upper northeast corner of North Dakota before charging through 542 kilometres of Minnesota and concluding at the mouth of Lake Superior in Wisconsin.

From there, oil can be transported to refineries across the continent.

The new project requires the installation of 18 new pump stations and three new storage terminals in Alberta.

Line 3 was given the go-ahead by the federal government in late November 2016, at the same time Trans Mountain was approved and after the plug was pulled on Enbridge’s beleaguered Northern Gateway pipeline.

The project passed the final major regulatory hurdle in June after being approved by Minnesota’s Public Utilities Board after a lengthy delay.

The existing pipeline will be decommissioned and left in the ground. This concerns many who argue that it could represent an environmental liability for decades to come.

Cameron of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition said the abandoned line “has the potential to damage local environments through metal deteriorating and making farmland pretty unstable.”

In an e-mail, Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner wrote: “Enbridge will continue to monitor the deactivated pipeline and maintain the right-of-way. Independent engineering research and analysis have determined that deactivated pipelines with adequate cover will have a very long life as load-bearing structures, even after decades of deactivation. Environmental regulatory requirements prohibit altering current hydrology. Therefore, the Line 3 deactivation process will protect water resources to ensure that the deactivated pipeline will not drain any fields, lakes, rivers, streams or other wetland areas.”

Concerns over Enbridge pipeline safety

In 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline spilled more than 20,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

As part of the subsequent settlement with the federal government, the pipeline company was required to replace the U.S. portion of Line 3 by the end of 2017, pending state approvals.

That hasn’t been a simple process.

In early 2017, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs filed a court challenge to stop the pipeline.

Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke and her organization Honor the Earth have led the charge in Minnesota against its construction, which will transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands along a new route through ancestral wild rice fields and waterways.

Because of the Kalamazoo spill — which has cost more than $1 billion to clean up — many eyes in Minnesota are on the newly proposed project.

Line 3 has also seen a series of spills over the years.

In 1991, Line 3 spilled 40,000 barrels near Grand Rapids. In 1999, the pipeline spilled 20,000 barrels of heavy crude near Regina. In 2007, two workers in Minnesota were killed in an explosion while attempting to repair the pipeline. Such fears are compounded by multiple spills on the nearby TransCanada Keystone pipeline. And earlier this month, an Enbridge pipeline transporting natural gas exploded near Prince George, requiring evacuations and residents to reduce gas consumption.

“The idea of cleanup is always overstated,” Scott said. “It’s not technically possible in a lot of cases. You’ll end up with toxic bitumen getting into aquifers and sediment, and the impacts can be generational.”

Pipeline emissions

There are also major concerns about long-term carbon lock-in effects. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published its latest report which warned of catastrophic impacts if the world fails to slash emissions by 2030.

Given the high costs for the pipeline, Enbridge will be very motivated to ship as much oil as possible for as long as possible.

Scott said that itself will incentivize new upstream production, such as Teck’s proposed Frontier mine — which will emit at least four megatonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

By offering lower cost shipping for the foreseeable future, marginal oilsands projects are made more economical.

Why haven’t I heard of this thing before?

Patrick McCurdy, professor of communication at the University of Ottawa and expert in oilsands advertising, noted in an interview with The Narwhal that Line 3 doesn’t pass through many dense urban centres. That’s compared to Trans Mountain, which has faced its greatest opposition in Burnaby and Vancouver.

“Media requires novelty or numbers, and neither of those boxes have been ticked,” McCurdy said.

Shane Gunster, associate professor in communication at Simon Fraser University, told The Narwhal that independent online media outlets in B.C. helped popularize knowledge of both Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway — which in turn forced traditional media outlets such as the Vancouver Sun to pay attention.

Gunster said Line 3 also lacks “charismatic species” like orcas to capture public attention.

“I hate to say it, but I think people just aren’t as concerned about prairies and wetlands as they are about the ocean and coastal environments,” he said.

Another factor is the clever rhetorical construction by Enbridge. Unlike Trans Mountain, which is explicitly named as an expansion, Line 3 has been portrayed as a means of preventing leaks: replacing an old rusty pipe with a new and improved version.

“Enbridge has done a really good job in billing this as a replacement project,” said Cameron of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition. “They’ve constructed this narrative that it’s just replacing the existing pipeline which is aging, and it’s just sort of a routine maintenance project. That’s been a big part of the fact that people have just accepted it as common practice and necessary.”

So how close is Line 3 to completion?

Enbridge is banking on an in-service date by the second half of 2019.

Cameron of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition said the pipeline is being constructed right now in Manitoba, with other portions already completed in Saskatchewan and the U.S.

But resistance continues to mount.

In July, the Spirit of the Buffalo prayer camp launched near Gretna, Manitoba. Meanwhile, in late September, a group of Indigenous land defenders and allies named Great Plains Resistance stopped construction for a day near Morden, Manitoba. A collective of Indigenous and environmental organizations also requested a reconsideration of the Line 3 approval by Minnesota’s Public Utilities Board.

Gunster of Simon Fraser University said that while Line 3 hasn’t received much public attention, that could quickly change, as it did for the Dakota Access Pipeline in light of Standing Rock.

So stay tuned — this may be the first but probably won’t be the last you hear of the Line 3 pipeline.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

Wade Davis: Life without wild things

This is an excerpt from the new book, Memory, published October 1, 2018 by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC. Some years...

Continue Reading

Recent Posts