Canada’s Divisive Pipelines – Answering All of Your Pipeline Questions

This article will attempt to explain everything you’ve ever wondered about pipelines but have been too afraid to ask.

What is a pipeline?

In the last few years in Canada, you’ve likely heard a lot about pipelines. Some things you’ve heard may have been good, and some bad. If there’s one thing you do know about pipelines, it’s that they’re divisive… and Trudeau is trying to make things better?

Trudeau and pipelines come up quite often together because when Trudeau came into office, plans for three pipelines were in the final phases of development. Shortly after coming into office, Trudeau’s government approved the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain project and the Enbridge Line 3 but rejected the Northern Gateway line. The Line 3 project is the one going to Wisconsin, USA, and is in fact only a replacement of the original line which has been in operation since 1968. Shortly after Kinder Morgan’s approval, activists started coming out in earnest against the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain (TM for short). The Line 3 renewal project hasn’t really come up often in the news, so while it is a major pipeline project in Canada, I’m not going to talk about it very much in this article. Following the backlash over TM’s approval, Trudeau went into damage control. They wanted the pipeline built, but they wanted the public to be okay with it too, so they started the consultation process… and that’s where we still are today nearly three years later.

So how do we define pipelines? Are they only for crude oil? How long have they been a thing? Pipelines are simply a more efficient means of transporting a substance from one place to another, and you can transport anything you want in them. Canada’s first pipeline was a natural gas line built in 1853 to Trois Rivières, at 25 km it was the world’s longest pipeline (that record now stands at 3787.2 km!). By 1953, Canada had five pipelines, and TM began operation, bringing crude oil from Alberta’s oil fields to the coast of BC where it could easily be sold to emerging Asian markets. The reason Canada has so many pipelines is because of the size of our country, and the fact that much of it is uninhabited wilderness. Also, we don’t have the capacity for refining all the oil we draw but to believe we wouldn’t be having a debate if we could process our own oil is false. Canada does refine some oil, about a quarter of what we produce, and that quarter is more oil than Canadians use. Building more refineries would be more expensive than it’s worth for us, although it’s something the government and oppositions have talked back and forth for decades.

Who cares about pipelines?

You might be thinking it’s all well and good that we transport things with these pipes, but who actually cares? Well, I mentioned foreign markets because as the second-largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia, Canada helps supply oil to much of the world. The oil producers themselves care a lot, this is how they make money after all, and as I said before, pipelines are the most efficient means of transport. As Canadians, we should all care about things that have major effects on our economy, and potentially our environment, but I understand that it can be difficult to wade through the politicization of pipelines to get to legitimate, unbiased facts. And a group which has become increasingly more vocal in the last decade, are the First Nations and settler groups living along the paths of pipelines. They care a lot and they want the world to know it. I’m not saying it’s bad they care either, they have absolutely every right.

And how right are they to be worried about pipeline failures? How common are those and what are the consequences? For that matter, what are the other options?

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has two categories for classifying pipeline events (or occurrences): accidents and incidents. Accidents are the more severe of the two and include situations where a person is killed or injured, the environment is damaged, or there is a serious fire, explosion or the pipeline is otherwise majorly compromised. An incident is anything involving the release of a product to the environment. As you may expect, incidents are a lot more common than accidents, and according to the TSB, in 2017 there were 74 incidents of product release. Evidently any product release is not ideal, however, the majority of releases were less than 8m3 of product, and in 2017 there was only one release 1001 and 10,000m3. To give some context, 10,000m3 is approximately equal to 13,900 hot tubs. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but of the 127 incidents in 2017, only half involved any product release at all.

2017 saw 5 pipeline accidents, more than both 2016 and 2015 which both had zero. Five may sound like an awful lot of accidents but on the whole, it’s below average for accidents in a given year. In the last decade, there were a total of 72 accidents and no fatalities associated with any of them. Still, I’m sure you’d like the number of accidents to be lower.

Despite what may seem like an awful lot of unrefined product being released into the wilds every year, at least it is in the wild. What I mean to say is that at least no one has been killed in any of the pipeline occurrences in the last 10 years. This doesn’t mean it is impossible, but it is very unlikely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of rail transport. The nature of rail transport requires that trains pass through towns and cities, so when railcars carrying oil derail, not only is there leakage to the environment, but the likelihood of an explosion is greatly increased due to the energy generated by friction trying to stop the train and the engine powering it. Because these accidents happen so close to towns, human fatalities usually occur. You’ve probably heard of the Lac-Mégantic disaster in which 47 people were killed when a train derailed and exploded.

These major train derailments which kill people may be less common, but minor derailments causing leakage to the environment aren’t. Trains aren’t any better an option than pipelines, but I’ll present you with a few more arguments now so you can make up your own mind.

Pros/Cons of pipelines

What, then, are the arguments on both sides of the debate? I just want to give you the arguments, rather than the reasoning behind them because most are self-explanatory and this article is already uber-long.


  • The pipelines are essential for Canada’s economy
  • Resource development promotes job growth in the middle-income sector
  • Pipelines don’t generate emissions while rail transport does


  • It’s against Canada’s climate goals to be funding infrastructure for high-emitting industries
  • Pipelines are a threat to local ecosystems
  • The pipeline was approved without enough consultation with Indigenous stakeholders

In response to these concerns, you might feel forced to choose between the economy and the environment. This is not the case. While it isn’t possible to eliminate the possibility of uncontrolled releases to the environment, it isn’t as though we’re throwing environmental concerns out the window. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is always doing research into how to prevent ruptures, and whether the diluted bitumen is corroding pipelines (don’t worry it’s not!). Don’t forget, it’s the pipeline companies who are responsible for regular check-ups and maintenance on the lines, and unused lines have to be carefully decommissioned the way you would a fuel storage tank. Additionally, you can even get more information in the form of a podcast called “Pipelines 101” created by NRCan.

Where does all this leave us now? In August of 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the government’s approval of TM on grounds that the National Energy Board’s (NEB) review was flawed. The Court of Appeal ruled that Ottawa failed in its consultation with First Nations groups. Despite this, Ottawa went ahead and bought the project from Kinder Morgan. Since the fall, Trudeau has been holding town halls to engage stakeholders and communicate the details of the project to the public.

They’re also looking into the decision by the Court that the NEB failed to look at the effects on the whale population due to increased shipping traffic.

Now that you have all the info I can give you, I hope you feel confident talking about these things with anyone you might meet on the street, in class, or at home. And I hope they can give you more perspectives to consider. Pipelines are a major part of Canada’s economy, and there’s no easy fix one way or another to make everyone happy. The best thing we can do as citizens is be informed but drudging through all the information out there can be exhausting – I don’t want to tell you how long it took me to research this article.

This was a long heavy article, so if you made it all the way to the end, here is a fun fact. At one point I typed into Google “Why did Canada buy…” and I was going to click pipeline when I read the line below it which was suggesting to me “Why did Canada buy the giant rubber duck”. Why the heck not.

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