The controversy over transporting crude from Alberta’s oil sands is becoming increasingly complex as awareness of the potential environmental, political and safety consequences of building new pipelines grows.
In the United States, the spotlight rests on TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL, a $7 billion pipeline that would carry up to 900,000 barrels of crude per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The U.S. State Department will decide whether or not it will approve the project in November, after issuing a final environmental impact statement.
In Canada, Enbridge plans to build a dual pipeline running from the oil sands to the coast at Kitimat, British Columbia, that would carry crude oil westbound for export to China and California, and natural gas condensate eastbound. The 1,170-kilometer, $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline proposal is undergoing a lengthy public regulatory process.
Although each would create thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in tax revenues and billions of dollars of economic stimulus, both pipelines face strong opposition. According to Danielle Droitsch, director of U.S. policy, Pembina Institute, the Keystone XL proposal has sparked “a massive debate” in the United States on whether the country should increase its dependency on oil, particularly oil that is a major source of carbon emissions. In Canada, the strongest resistance is coming from First Nations groups because Northern Gateway would cross much of their traditional land and threatens to disrupt wildlife habitats.
After a few significant spills from pipelines over the past year (including from Keystone, the precursor to Keystone XL), there is increasing concern about spills and accidents on both sides of the border, particularly because the crude from the oil sands is inherently more corrosive than other types of crude. “The pipeline safety concern is a new and emerging issue that started in the U.S.,” said Droitsch, “and I'm sure you’ll start to hear similar concerns around the Gateway pipeline.”
Both TransCanada and Enbridge say that they have taken extensive measures to minimize the risk of spills and mitigate potential impacts. They emphasize the benefits of their projects, including reduced dependency on politically unstable countries in the Middle East.
“Keystone will create 20,000 jobs in the U.S. and Canada, but mostly in the U.S., and inject $20 billion into the U.S. economy,” said Terry Cunha, team leader of TransCanada’s communications and media relations department. “It will reduce the import of crude from Libya and the rest of the Middle East by 40 per cent.” And the U.S. may need the supply. The Supplemental Draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) said that without Keystone XL, Gulf of Mexico refineries will face a shortage of crude in both the short- and long-term, as supply from traditional sources in Mexico and Venezuela dwindles – a gap that would otherwise be filled with oil from the Middle East.
Other critics argue that TransCanada has disregarded environmental concerns by choosing the shortest route, one that would take the pipeline through a large wetland ecosystem in the Sandhills in Nebraska and through the Ogallala Aquifer, a significant freshwater reserve. “The route we’re taking is the shortest, but it also has the least amount of impact when it comes to the number of landowners, wildlife and the number of water bodies, plus a variety of other environmental considerations,” said Cunha. Whereas TransCanada is wrapping up the regulatory review of Keystone XL, Enbridge is at a relatively early stage in the process, with a Joint Review Panel decision at least two years away.
Meanwhile, several environmental and First Nations groups are voicing their opposition to Northern Gateway, most recently, 35 Dene chiefs from Alberta and Canada’s North. “But they are far from a majority of stakeholders along the proposed right of way,” claimed Paul Stanway, communications manager, Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines.
The company has promised to support Aboriginal businesses in the regions affected by the pipeline, hire Aboriginal workers and give First Nations groups a 10 per cent equity stake in the pipeline, but only a few groups have accepted the benefits package so far. “First Nation’s opposition to Gateway could potentially create a barrier to the development of this pipeline – enough to stop it,” said Droitsch. “That’s because the First Nations have a considerable amount of power, especially in BC, where they have not yet resolved their land claims.”
Team effort on northern pipelines
The federal government is teaming up with Alberta’s two main universities to research emerging technologies in pipeline materials science, particularly for pipelines that will pass through northern Canada. The research agreement between CANMET, the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta will give professors of materials science adjunct scientist status at CANMET’s new Materials Technology Laboratory (MTL) in Hamilton, while CANMET scientists will have reciprocal professor status at the two western campuses.
“The goal is to strengthen the working relationship between CANMET-MTL staff and researchers at both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta,” said Ron Hugo, head of the department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary. “The projects will be of a nature that will assist Canada's industry with the design, construction and operation of pipelines within Canada,” he explained.
The researchers will focus on pipelines proposed for the North where more extreme environmental conditions exist, such as the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Beaufort Sea through the Northwest Territories to hook up with gas pipelines in northern Alberta.
Although the scientists are still developing their research questions under the collaboration, Hugo said they will be looking at some of the challenges of building and maintaining northern pipelines. This includes factors such as the temperature effects caused by thermal expansion, or pipeline settling in areas where warmer fluids in the pipeline can thaw the permafrost.
Potential research areas could include studying the impacts of thermal expansion or variable settling on the operating characteristics of the pipeline, including the behaviour of welds, the performance of external protective liners and the amount of bending strain in the pipeline.