After the sands: Pipelines or pipe dreams

| October 8, 2015
After the sands: Pipelines or pipe dreams

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All this week, excerpts from a new book laying out what Canada's political parties have not: a plan to transition Canada to a low-carbon society are being featured at

After the sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians is a roadmap for ending oil and natural gas exports and ensuring that all Canadians get sufficient energy at affordable prices in a carbon-constrained future.

The book's author, founding director and former head of the Parklands Insitutute Gordon Laxer, has chosen excerpts from his book that will inform the debate about Canada's energy future. We'll be presenting them this week at Here is todays excerpt:

Pipelines were once thought of as merely ways to convey oil and natural gas. No longer. They now convey controversy. Pipelines ship energy that fuels modern economies. They also ship ecological disasters and violations of indigenous sovereignty and determine who gets and does not get vital oil and natural gas supplies. Opposition is growing to pipelines that encourage the Sands to expand their toxic footprint in northern Alberta and get the dirty oil to tidewater.

Opposition to TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry Sands oil through Nebraska to Texas was so great that in August 2011, two thousand Americans were arrested in front of the White House in an attempt to stop it. That got President Obama's attention. He halted the XL line three months later. Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway route to Kitimat on British Columbia's northern coast is wholly within Canada, but has sparked intense opposition. If built, it will take Sands oil to bc's coast mainly for shipment to China. So would twinning Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline to Vancouver. A third idea, shipping Sands and Bakken shale oil to Montreal and the east coast, has also ignited fierce resistance. Reversing Enbridge Line 9 has been approved. The partial conversion of TransCanada's natural gas mainline, Energy East, to ship oil to Saint John, New Brunswick, is under review. Their combined capacity is much greater than the oil use in Eastern Canada. Energy East is mainly a Sands-exporting line. Because they pass near the burgeoning Bakken shale oil field mainly in North Dakota but also in Saskatchewan, both lines will likely carry American oil to Eastern Canada and for offshore export.

Pipeline routes matter. As long-term commitments to a given route, current and potential pipelines are crucial to Canada's environmental sustainability, democratic sovereignty and energy security. They can determine whether Canadians have the means to get first access to their own energy. They can also lock us into a carbon economy.

All-Canadian Natural Gas Pipeline

Historian William Kilbourn compares pipeline-building to railways in the making of Canada. A line to take natural gas from Alberta to Quebec City (today's TransCanada's gas mainline) caused the Liberal government to fall soon after the Progressive Conservatives, led by fiery Prairie lawyer John Diefenbaker, charged that letting the pipeline fall into American hands was a sellout. "The pipeline debate of 1956 was the stormiest episode in Canadian parliamentary history," Kilbourn writes. "[It raised] most of the classic issues in Canada's survival as a nation: American economic influence and the nature of Canadian-American relations, the debate between north-south continentalism and east-west nationalism; the questions of transportation and national unity, of energy and national growth, of control over natural resources and their exploitation; [and] the latent conflict between western producer and eastern consumer."

Pipeline debates were similar to those about railway routes just after Confederation. Should the Canadian Pacific Railway go the profitable route through Chicago to Canada's Prairies, as British rail magnate Sir Edward Watkin demanded? Or should it follow an all-Canadian route through sparsely populated northern Ontario, as economic nationalists like Prime Minister John A. Macdonald insisted? Macdonald won, ran roughshod over Aboriginal lands in the West, and united Canada by rail and force. TransCanada's natural gas mainline copied the all-Canadian rail route and became a national icon. Oil picked up Watkin's desired path through Chicago to southern Ontario. These routes have major consequences for Canadians' eco-energy security today. TransCanada's gas mainline bound Canada together and asserted Canadian independence. A shorter line ran from Alberta to B.C.'s coast. Only Atlantic Canada and easternmost Quebec failed to get Western Canadian natural gas. It was a far-sighted project with positive consequences that are still with us.

After 1970, pipelines turned continental, moving Canadian energy to the United States, eclipsing the west-to-east Canadian routes. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was a turning point. When Justice Thomas Berger headed an inquiry into the line to bring natural gas from Canada's Arctic to Alberta and the U.S. and placed a moratorium on it in 1977, he shocked the petro-elites. No longer could they ignore Aboriginal land claims in pipeline decisions. The line was never built, but promoters have periodically tried to revive it.

From National to Continental Pipelines: Natural Gas

The 1989 Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA (1994) spurred the building of export lines to America. All natural gas lines built after the 1960s head south. By 2011, almost two-thirds of Canada's natural gas was exported to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Ontario and Quebec import growing supplies of fracked natural gas from nearby states. Exporting natural gas from Western Canada and importing it in Central Canada reduces the use of TransCanada's 14,101-kilometre mainline. It's in trouble. That's why TransCanada wants to convert part of it in order to ship oil to New Brunswick in a retrofit called Energy East. Despite falling volumes, TransCanada's mainline still carries more natural gas, mostly from Alberta, than any other gas pipeline system in North America. It still unites Canadians.

Atlantic Canada has some natural gas. Nova Scotia's Sable Island gas began flowing in 1999. It and some onshore New Brunswick natural gas supply parts of both provinces, but most Maritime gas is exported to Maine's power plants. Newfoundland also has natural gas, but uses it only to assist in oil production. Globe and Mail reporter Nathan Vanderklippe asks, "If the east has its own gas and the west wants to send its gas across the Pacific, what's left for the Mainline?" Vanderklippe turns "west" and "east" into persons with wants, when the reality is that big, mainly foreign, petro-corporations create the "wants" in both regions. Canadians' eco-energy needs are not among them. Natural gas exports to the U.S. are falling, being displaced by rising U.S. natural gas output.

No Canadian Oil Pipeline

In the 1950s, oil was treated like just another commodity, not Albertans' birthright or a nation-builder like natural gas. Big Oil and pipeline corporations pushed Ottawa to allow them to sell Western Canadian oil to the huge U.S. Midwest market that sits enticingly between Alberta's oil wells and southern Ontario's market. It was better for them than to build a long, unprofitable route through lightly populated northern Ontario. Canada's de facto oil mainline -- Enbridge's Great Lakes system built in the 1950s -- brings Alberta oil through the U.S. Midwest before entering Ontario at Sarnia. It was continental, a harbinger of energy-exporting policies forty years later through NAFTA.

Smaller oil independents in Alberta proposed an all-Canadian oil line to Montreal. They lost. Big Oil convinced Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that an all-Canadian line was unimportant. Today, we reap the consequences of that poor choice. The us routes make it difficult for Canada to quickly respond to today's challenges of oil insecurity, climate change chaos and the need to protect local environments.

Until 2011, oil pipelines from Canada were built to satisfy America's oil addiction. The number and volume of these lines has grown, and with them so has Canada'a NAFTA proportionality obligation. Existing oil lines to the U.S. include:

• TEL's Keystone pipeline, to Illinois and Oklahoma—590,000 barrels per day of synthetic Sands crude (not to be confused with TEL's proposed Keystone XL pipeline)

• Enbridge's Alberta Clipper line from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin—570,000 barrels per day (ultimate capacity 800,000 barrels per day)

• Enbridge's Southern Lights line—brings diluent from us refineries to the Sands, where it is added to bitumen to move it easily in pipelines

• Houston-based Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline to Vancouver and Seattle, from Edmonton—300,000 barrels per day,

half of it is exported

• TransCanada's proposed Keystone xl pipeline (not approved at the time of writing) would export mainly Sands oil from Alberta to the Texas coast.

Enbridge's Lakehead system has been Canada's de facto oil mainline to Eastern Canada. It heads east from Alberta and Saskatchewan and enters the U.S. at Gretna, Manitoba. One line goes to Chicago and the other loops through northern Wisconsin and Michigan before both lines meet to re-enter Canada at Sarnia, Ontario. For sixty years, the lines carried Western Canadian oil almost exclusively. Much of it was offloaded in the Midwest states before enough re-entered Canada to supply Ontario refiners. From 1976 to 1999, Enbridge's Lakehead system and Line 9 also delivered Western Canadian oil and energy security to Montrealers. All that has changed. Passing near North Dakota's Bakken shale oilfield, Enbridge's Lakehead system adds us oil to Western Canadian oil and ships it to Eastern Canadians. When Enbridge Line 9 is re-reversed, it will bring Western Canadian and Bakken shale oil to Quebec via pipeline.

It already gets there by train. The tragic explosion at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 carried us Bakken oil. Enbridge's Lakehead system and Line 9 can no longer deliver energy security to Eastern Canadians. During an international oil shortage, Washington would likely disallow the export of U.S. Bakken oil to Canada. Eastern Canadians need a secure domestic source.

Canadian Energy Self-Reliance Temporarily Won

Despite the route of Canada's de facto oil mainline through the Great Lakes states, Canada gained much "energy self-reliance"  during OPEC's rising power in the early 1970s and Iran's 1978–79 revolution. Even though Canada had the capacity to deliver domestic oil to all residents, Eastern Canadians were made vulnerable by John Diefenbaker's 1961 National Oil Policy, which divided Canada into two markets. East of the Ottawa River -- Quebec and Atlantic Canada -- imported oil. West of the river -- Ontario and the West – got Western Canadian oil. Ontarians paid higher than the international oil price for twelve years (1961-1973) to support Alberta's oil industry development.

Subsidization of Alberta's oil lasted a little longer than the subsequent period, in which Ontarians and Montrealers paid a "made-in-Canada" price below the world oil price. This was when OPEC and Big Oil concocted oil shortages to reap windfall revenues. Ontario's earlier subsidy story is conveniently forgotten.

Instead, we've heard a selective story about Ottawa and Eastern Canada "robbing" Western Canada of much of its resource wealth through lower Canadian oil prices (1974-1985) before and during the National Energy Program.

Dividing Canada's oil market at the Ottawa River benefited Big Oil. It shortened the distances between their wells in Alberta and their markets in adjacent U.S. states. Diefenbaker's National Oil Policy helped reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil by sending Canadian oil to the U.S.  Midwest rather than to Eastern Canadians. Big, mainly foreign, Oil conceived the Ottawa River line, and Diefenbaker's Conservatives bought into it. It is still the dominant pattern. It did not and does not make sense to leave almost half of Canadians oil-insecure. There was and is enough domestic conventional oil for all Canadians.

Eastern Canadians experienced the riskiness of importing oil when supplies were cut several times between 1973 and 1979. Pierre Trudeau's government quickly rectified things before starting the National Energy Program in 1980. Ottawa subsidized the building of the Interprovincial Pipeline (now Enbridge Line 9) that brought western oil from Sarnia to Montreal, cutting across the Ottawa River line and displacing much imported oil. The combination of government energy conservation measures, cuts in demand due to rising oil prices, government support for switching consumers from oil to natural gas, and building the Interprovincial Pipeline worked. By 1983, oil imports had fallen to 28 percent of their 1973 level.16 From 1976 to 1999, Montrealers had secure supplies of domestic oil, demonstrating a major benefit of Quebec remaining in Canada during two sovereignty referendums. But Canada retreated from energy independence when Brian Mulroney's Conservative government brought in pro–Big Oil policies after 1984.

In 1999, without debate or fanfare, Enbridge reversed Line 9's direction, ending Canadian oil supplies to Montreal and bringing substantial oil imports into Ontario for the first time since the 1950s. Enbridge was allowed to reverse Line 9 for "commercial reasons," part of the free market mania unconcerned with Canadians' oil security. Not to worry, the market will always provide.17

Quebecers now rely on imports for about 90 percent of their oil.Canada has reverted to its colonial role as "hewers of wood and diggers of oil wells," buttressed by deregulation and NAFTA's proportionality rule.


Re-reversing Line 9 should bring Canadian oil to Montreal again, but will not return us to 1976. Built to make Canadians more energy self-sufficient, Line 9 will now likely bring both Sands oil and us shale oil from North Dakota to

Quebecers. Both fuels are more hazardous than conventional oil. Line 9 will help Big Oil but won't give Quebecers sustainable fuel security. More important than Line 9 is TransCanada's Energy East plan to partly convert its natural gas

mainline to ship Western Canadian oil east, and add 1,400 kilometres of new pipeline from Quebec to Saint John. If approved and built, it will carry 1.1 million barrels of oil per day, compared to Enbridge's 300,000 barrels per day.

From Continental to Offshore Exports

Until recently, virtually none of Canada's oil and natural gas went offshore. Then two events altered everything. U.S. natural gas production surged, reducing imports from Canada, and Obama halted the Keystone XL oil pipeline in 2011. Big Oil in Canada was shocked. They finally did what Peter Lougheed had told them to do six years earlier -- open a second front in Asia, where they could get much higher prices for both oil and gas. There are eighteen liquefied natural gas (LNG) proposals to export Canadian natural gas from B.C.'s coast. Only three or four of the proposals are thought to have a good chance of being built. 

Although oil is increasingly transported in Canada by rail, barge and Great Lakes tankers, pipelines are and will remain the main way to move large volumes. The following proposed pipelines could bring large amounts of Canadian oil, mainly Sands oil, offshore for the first time:

• Twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil line—The original line takes Alberta oil to Vancouver and Washington state. Capacity: nearly 600,000 barrels per day, much of which will likely go to Asia.

• Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway line from near Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C. Capacity: 525,000 barrels per day of mainly bitumen, bound mostly for China.

• Partial conversion of TransCanada's natural gas mainline (Energy East) to move western domestic oil (including bitumen) to Saint John, New Brunswick, to be taken by tankers to the U.S. east coast, Texas, Europe or Asia. Capacity: 1.1 million barrels per day.

• Re-reversal of Enbridge Line 9 from Sarnia to Montreal, so Western Canadian oil, including bitumen, gets to Quebec. Capacity: 300,000 barrels per day, most of which was originally to be sent to Portland, Maine, for export, but may now stay in Montreal. 

If Northern Gateway is built, bitumen and lighter crude would be taken by tanker from Northern Gateway's terminus at Kitimat through B.C.'s hazardous coastal waters. An informal federal ban on oil-tanker traffic in the straits around Haida Gwaii has been in place since 1972, so would have to be lifted.

Strong opposition comes from an alliance of indigenous peoples, environmentalists and trade unionists. Resistance to twinning Kinder Morgan's oil line is also strong. Especially after an oil spill in beautiful English Bay in the heart of Vancouver in 2015, there is widespread opposition throughout B.C. to the greater tanker traffic that pipeline expansion would attract. It matters whether pipelines are geared to carry Canadian oil to the U.S., Asia or Canada. A pipeline's route can have a decisive influence for the next fifty years. The route can also affect the bite of NAFTA's proportionality rule. 

The greater the share of Canadian oil going to Asia, the smaller the portion going to the U.S., dropping Canada' NAFTA export obligation. During an oil shortage in Eastern Canada, Ottawa could divert Canadian oil exports bound for Asia to Eastern Canadians instead, without violating NAFTA. As we've seen, however, Canada cannot send oil to Eastern Canadians quickly, something that is vital in a supply crisis. An equally urgent question is whether Canada should build any new pipelines and continue exporting carbon fuels at all.

Growing Opposition to Pipelines in Canada

Those concerned about Canadian energy security have long demanded the re-reversal of Enbridge Line 9. But when Enbridge's proposal came, many early supporters, including me, opposed it. Why? Wouldn't it revive the dream of giving Quebecers and eastern Ontarians first access to Canadian oil again? 

No. As environmentalists clearly see, Line 9 is simply a way to move Sands and Bakken shale oil and will not enhance Canadians' sustainable energy security. It will encourage Sands expansion. Cutting Ontario's access to sweet light crude will make "the province entirely dependent on a single risky source of oil (Alberta's)," wrote Matt Price of Environmental Defence and Gillian McEachern of Forest Ethics. Enbridge's Line 9 re-reversal sparked their Freedom from Dirty Oil report. "It is never prudent to rely on a single source of anything," they wrote. Curiously, Gaz Métro and Russia's Gazprom used the no-single-source argument to convince Quebec to approve liquefied natural gas imports.

Imports from OPEC countries and Russia are more secure than Canadian energy sources, Price and McEachern argue. Really? That is far-fetched. Although it makes sense for importing countries to diversify their sources to reduce the risk of being cut off by any one of them, domestically sourced oil is far more secure than any imports. Canadians, though, will win the greatest energy security by transitioning off carbon fuels altogether. All carbon fuels are finite and non-renewable and therefore ultimately insecure. Price and McEachern wield their implausible argument for a good cause -- to keep Alberta's "dirty oil" out of Ontario. But must Ontarians or Quebecers choose between Sands oil and less-dirty foreign oil? 27 Why not a third choice -- living on Western Canadian conventional (non-fracked) oil? 

Enbridge didn't reckon on the surge in environmental and Aboriginal opposition. The Sierra Club and Vermont Natural Resources Council got Vermont's regulator to overturn an earlier approval to reverse the northward flow of the Portland, Maine to Montreal pipeline. It's unclear whether Enbridge will pursue its earlier plan to carry most of the oil, including Sands oil, to Portland, Maine. It would require U.S. approval, including a presidential permit. If not, the oil will stay in Montreal, at least until a higher bidder is found. At first, most will be conventional oil, but Enbridge doesn't rule out carrying more Sands oil.

Ontarians became aware that Enbridge shipped them Sands oil after its line ruptured 3 million litres into the Kalamazoo River in nearby Michigan in 2010. "Learning about Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops," said Deborah Hersman, chair of the U.S.  National Transportation Safety Board. The Board found Enbridge guilty of "pervasive organizational failures." But it was worse. Enbridge knew the line was corroded and cracked, yet did nothing. Bitumen is hard to clean up. Conventional oil floats, but the bitumen sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. Despite cleanup efforts costing over a billion dollars, the river is still polluted. The Kalamazoo spill was a wake-up call that Sands oil may cause pipeline breaks more readily than conventional oil. In 2013, Sands oil spilled and ran along a suburban street in Mayflower, Arkansas, from an ExxonMobil pipe break, alerting the public to the dangers of piping Sands oil.31 Massive opposition to the Keystone XL line passing through Nebraska's fragile Ogallala water aquifer led Obama to halt it. Environmentalists oppose Line 9's reversal. Équiterre in Quebec, ForestEthics in Ontario and Environmental Defence contest shipping Sands oil and fracked shale oil on it. Most Quebecers want the line delayed until there is stronger environmental protection. They choose cleaner oil imports over dirty (Sands) domestic oil.

Proposed pipelines in B.C. and Eastern Canada must cross many lands belonging to Indigenous peoples. They've put up the most energetic opposition. To weaken their power, Harper's government passed omnibus Bill C-45 in 2011. Among many other things, it gutted the 1882 Navigable Waters Protection Act. That act, originally meant to assist navigation, was later interpreted to require developers to notify the federal government of plans to cross each waterway, which triggered federal environmental assessments and often extensive consultations with indigenous peoples before construction could occur. Since Canada has so many waterways, development was slowed. No longer. Bill C-45 drastically cut the number of waterways needing assessment.

Annita McPhee, former head of the Tahltan First Nation council in B.C., sees Bill C-45 as a "direct attempt to undermine the protection of those lakes and waters and to allow access for developers. This is affecting First Nations, but it's [also] affecting everybody." Bill C-45 and the proposed Sands oil exporting lines across First Nations territories sparked the Idle No More movement in 2012. It quickly spread after Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike. Flash mobs did round dances at malls and city intersections. Roads and railways were blockaded, and sizeable protests spread across Canada and into the U.S., Sweden, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and Egypt. Many non-natives joined in.

Pipelines aren't the only oil-moving means that are triggering opposition. Rail is making a comeback where pipelines don't exist. Canada's Transportation Safety Board found that an unsafe railway and lax audits from Transport Canada were responsible for the towering fireballs that erupted at Lac-Mégantic in 2013. The train was carrying Bakken shale oil. To its credit, Enbridge had refused to carry Bakken oil with extremely high levels of hydrogen sulphide before the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.35 But will Enbridge carry shale oil if hydrogen sulphide levels are reduced but not eliminated? The temptation will be strong. Since Enbridge Line 9 no longer exclusively carries Canadian oil, it cannot provide oil self-sufficiency to Canadians. North Dakota shale oil already gets to Quebec. Enbridge will want to carry some shale oil because it's close to their pipelines through North Dakota on its way to Ontario and Quebec.

To here more about Canada's energy future, you can join Gordon Laxer at launches for After the Sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians in Ottawa and Toronto.

We'll be featuring an excerpt from the book each day this week. To read them all, click here.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.



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