Even as calls abound for a green economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, construction is underway on major new pipelines in B.C. and Alberta to carry diluted bitumen and natural gas to international markets.
For experts who say the world is already moving too slowly to avoid catastrophic climate change the decision to build new pipelines is a pressing concern. But for Alberta’s oil industry, which has felt the pinch from a lack of pipeline capacity for years, new construction offers hope for better prices down the road.
The federal government, meanwhile, continues to insist that Canada can have both a strong oil and gas industry and meet its climate targets.
In comments to The Globe and Mail, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said, “I am very serious about combatting climate change and I’m very serious about net zero, and that means we need to make sure we have a prosperous, innovative, healthy oil and gas industry.”
Despite ongoing uncertainty about major pipelines south of the border and opposition to projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada, O’Regan said the federal government is pushing for both Keystone XL and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement to move forward.
On Trans Mountain, he told The Globe: “It’s getting built.”
However, the prospect of new oil and gas infrastructure could pose a major challenge for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as major investments in pipeline projects signal a commitment to oilsands production for years to come.
“I’m very worried,” said Juan Moreno-Cruz, a Canada Research Chair in energy transitions based at the University of Waterloo, who pointed to a 2019 analysis in the journal Nature that found existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure has already put the world’s ability to limit warming to 1.5 C at risk.
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“Every time you do something new, something as monumental as these pipelines, you are delaying that and increasing the chances that we’re just not going to be able to achieve the climate goals we need to,” Moreno-Cruz said.
Richard Masson, an executive fellow at the University of Calgary and chair of the World Petroleum Council, noted that global demand for oil is still forecasted to grow in the coming years. While the International Energy Agency says the rate of growth will weaken, overall demand is expected to increase by 5.7 million barrels of oil per day between 2019 and 2025.
“There are really very limited choices for transportation fuel. Electricity doesn’t work for jets and trains and planes. And even for cars, electric vehicles are a tiny share of the market and it’s going to be a long time before they take a meaningful share of the market,” he said.
Masson said he believes the oilsands will play a part in providing fuels for transportation and feedstock for petrochemicals for decades to come. And, he added, new pipelines will help ensure Alberta producers aren’t forced to sell their product at a discount.
Several factors have contributed to the lower prices for Alberta crude, according to Masson. Looking back to 2018, there wasn’t enough pipeline capacity to carry all the oil that was being produced in Alberta to refineries, causing a glut in the province. In addition, a number of the U.S. midwest refineries that usually take in Alberta oil were undergoing repairs, so there was less demand for the raw product (leaving producers to send their oil to refineries that were less efficient at processing heavy oil).
“That just resulted in this huge blowout in prices,” said Masson.
In response, the Alberta government brought in curtailment, restricting the amount of oil produced in the province, he explained.
This year, as demand dropped due to COVID-19, producers voluntarily cut production, but Masson said, it won’t be long before demand climbs back up and pipeline capacity becomes an issue once again.
Beyond the risks of ongoing reliance on fossil fuels affecting climate change, there are significant concerns about the local environmental threat posed by some of the major pipeline projects currently under construction.
The devastating consequences of a diluted bitumen spill in the Salish Sea, for instance, is a major concern for some coastal First Nations who oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Cynthia Callison, a founding partner of the Vancouver law firm Callison & Hanna and a member of the Tahltan Nation in northwest B.C., said those underlying reasons — the risk of irreparable harm to traditional territories — are critical for understanding why many Indigenous people haven’t consented to the project.
“For Indigenous people, they believe that the risks are too high, that they’re too great, that there is no way to mitigate any leak especially around important waterways,” Callison said.
She pointed to the potentially devastating impacts of an oil spill in the Fraser River, a major salmon-bearing river many First Nations rely on for both food and the survival of their cultural practices.
Despite the risks, construction is underway on major pipelines in Canada. Here’s the status of four key projects.
Trans Mountain pipeline
Construction of the controversial 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline, which will increase pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day and result in a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic to the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C., is underway in both B.C. and Alberta.
Work continues on the expansions of both the Westridge Marine Terminal and the Burnaby Terminal in the Lower Mainland and construction of the pipeline began in the Kamloops area this spring. In a June 1 update, Trans Mountain said the pipeline workforce around Kamloops would increase to 600 at peak construction in the late summer or early fall.
Construction is also underway in Alberta, including on the pipeline itself in some regions. In the Jasper National Park-Mount Robson Provincial Park area, the company has begun replacing and reactivating a dormant section of pipeline that had previously been twinned.
The cost of the pipeline expansion, which alongside the existing pipeline is now owned by a federal Crown corporation, has ballooned from an estimated $7.4 billion to $12.6 billion.
The project continues to face opposition in B.C. from some First Nations and environmental groups deeply concerned about the threat it poses to lands and waters.
In one of the latest public demonstrations against the pipeline, Simon Fraser University professor Tim Takaro set up a protest camp, suspended from a tree, in an effort to protect a portion of forest he says will be cut down to make way for construction, CBC reported.
In a loss for opponents, the Supreme Court of Canada earlier this summer refused to hear an appeal of a lower court decision denying an application for judicial review of the Trans Mountain expansion approval from three affected First Nations. But legal experts say there may be other avenues First Nations opposed to the project can pursue.
Callison said First Nations could still make an international complaint that Canada has failed to respect Indigenous rights.
Such a complaint could have a powerful effect, she said. Canada doesn’t “want to lose face, they don’t want to be seen as not respecting the legal rights of Indigenous people,” Callison said.
“So when there is a human rights body that condemns Canada for failing to protect those rights, they do take action, or they have in the past.”
TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline
A linchpin of B.C.’s burgeoning liquefied natural gas industry, the roughly 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline will carry natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat, where it will be liquefied for transport overseas. The pipeline is expected to begin operating in 2023.
The $6.6 billion pipeline, owned by TC Energy, is strongly opposed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters. There are significant concerns that pipeline construction could harm protected wetlands, erase cultural history and pose a safety threat to Indigenous women as a result of worker camps.
Despite these concerns, construction has moved forward. While Coastal GasLink was forced to stop work near protected wetlands earlier this summer, construction has continued in other areas along the route. Last month, Surerus Murphy Joint Venture, one of the companies contracted to build the pipeline, shared photos on LinkedIn of the first segment of pipe in the ground, calling it “a major milestone” for the project.
Construction of the mainline pipeline is expected to continue through next year and, according to a recent update from Coastal GasLink, involve more than 2,000 workers. In June the first group of workers moved into the Vanderhoof Lodge along section 4 of the pipeline route, which spans the area north of Prince George to northwest of Vanderhoof, and construction continues on the next phase of the lodge.
B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office has also granted the company permission to proceed with construction near the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre despite not having consent from the Wet’suwet’en house group, The Tyee reported. In February, RCMP arrested seven people, including Unist’ot’en matriarchs, at the healing centre as they moved to enforce a court injunction aimed at preventing land defenders from blocking Coastal GasLink’s access to worksites.
TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline
Construction of the Canadian portion of the Keystone XL pipeline has started despite uncertainty over its fate across the border. If built, the roughly 1,947-kilometre pipeline could ship 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil from Hardisty, Alta., to Steele City, Nebraska, where the crude would enter existing pipes en route to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
While the pipeline is planned to be in service by 2023, the project is still facing a number of hurdles. In early July the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to overturn the decision of a lower court that blocked a key permit for Keystone XL, delaying construction.
O’Regan has said the federal government is “intent on getting it done” and pointed to a strong relationship with U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.
At the same time, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has promised to overturn Keystone XL’s approval if he is elected U.S. president this November.
Alberta, meanwhile, has bet more than a billion dollars on the project moving forward. Earlier this year, Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government announced a $1.5 billion investment in TC Energy through stocks, as well as a $6 billion loan guarantee in 2021 to help complete the pipeline.
Construction on the 269-kilometre Canadian portion of the pipeline began this summer.
Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline
Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline aims to replace the existing 34-inch diameter pipe running from outside of Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin, with a 36-inch pipe along most of the route to nearly double its capacity to 760,000 barrels per day, according to the U.S. project page.
Construction of the $5.3 billion Canadian portion of the Line 3 replacement is complete and began operating at the end of last year, but there are fresh delays on construction south of the border.
Significant construction work was put off until 2021 when a Minnesota pollution regulator said in June it would hold public hearings on the project this summer. Prior to this, the Financial Post reported late last year that analysts expected the pipeline replacement would be in operation by the end of this year.
On energy transitions, ‘the sooner we start, the better’
Overhauling the energy system — shifting from a reliance on fossil fuels to clean energy — is no easy task.
“The only thing we know is that the sooner we start, the better,” Moreno-Cruz said. “We should have started a long time ago.”
Even as governments and industry continue to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure in Canada and around the world, Sarah Petrevan, policy director at Clean Energy Canada, said there are signs the clean energy transition is taking off.
Globally, “publicly traded renewable power portfolios have posted significantly higher returns for investors and lower volatility than fossil fuels during the past 10 years,” she said, referencing research from the International Energy Agency and the Imperial College of London.
At the same time, Clean Energy Canada’s own research shows that while 50,000 jobs could be lost in fossil fuels over the next decade, there could be more than 160,000 created in clean energy, she said.
“Based on some of the stats and the trends that we’re looking at, there is more bang for your buck for governments to invest in a clean energy future,” she said.