Canada's Complicated Pipeline History

By Kheraj, Sean | Winnipeg Free Press, June 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Canada's Complicated Pipeline History


Kheraj, Sean, Winnipeg Free Press


The federal government’s $4.5-billion decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline has set off a new debate about the controversial project.

Canada has a long history of building energy pipelines, but Canadian attitudes toward major energy pipeline projects have changed over time.

Unease over the environmental effects of pipeline construction and operation has grown from primarily local concerns, led by communities of settlers and Indigenous Peoples along pipeline routes, to global concerns about climate change and international environmental policy.

Oil companies have built pipelines in Canada to move petroleum since 1862. But the construction and operation of major long-distance oil and gas pipelines that cross provincial and international borders did not start until the mid-20th century, following the discovery of enormous volumes of crude oil and natural gas near Leduc, Alta., just south of Edmonton.

Within six years of Imperial Oil’s discoveries at Leduc, two major trunk oil pipelines were built, spanning the country.

The first was the Interprovincial pipeline, opened in 1950, that connected Edmonton to refineries in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and parts of the northern U.S. The second was the Trans Mountain pipeline, a western line that travelled from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., and began shipping oil in 1953.

These two pipelines carried the overwhelming majority of Alberta’s crude oil to markets across Canada and parts of the United States. They fuelled Canada’s rapid transition to a high-energy, fossil-fuel economy and extraordinary economic growth and prosperity.

But pipeline construction in the past was not without controversy. The construction of these first two long-distance oil pipelines occurred under the regulatory authority of the federal Board of Transport Commissioners. The board approved both pipelines following a few days of hearings with no public consultation or environmental assessments.

Some who lived along the paths of these pipelines worried about the potential for oil spills and other adverse environmental consequences.

For instance, in 1953, the chief and council for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation from the Sarnia Indian Reserve wrote to the transport minister, Lionel Chevrier. In the letter, he objected to the government’s granting of a right-of-way through the reserve to Interprovincial Pipe Line Company. The cabinet approved the right-of-way and ordered the company to compensate the First Nation.

Settler farmers also began raising concerns about the environmental effects of pipeline construction and oil spills on their land in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Norman Richmond, a southern Ontario landowner from Pelham Township, was one such concerned citizen. He spoke before the National Energy Board in November 1961, warning of the need for careful environmental planning in pipeline construction. He argued that “future planning is so important that to be ruthless about it and not consider what our children and our children’s children are going to find would be a detriment to all concerned.”

Occasionally, pipeline politics rose to national prominence. This first occurred in the mid-1950s during what was known as “The Great Pipeline Debate,” an acrimonious political debacle over the construction of the TransCanada pipeline, the country’s first long-distance, interprovincial natural gas pipeline. …

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