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Oil export pipelines: Will Canada ever build another?

Pipeline companies struggling to earn support from government, regulators and the public

Trans Mountain Pipeline 20160119

A man holds a sign while protesting outside National Energy Board hearings on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C. (Canadian Press)

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The fate of new oil pipelines in Canada is in a sorry state.

The imperilled Northern Gateway project. The Obama-rejected Keystone XL venture. The protest-filled Trans Mountain expansion. And the suspect political support around the Energy East proposal.

With the oil market in a severe downturn and stiff opposition greeting every pipeline proposal, there is debate over whether this country will ever break ground on new export pipelines. 

'We run the risk that we missed the window of opportunity.' - Dave Collyer, former CAPP president

Even veterans of the oilpatch aren't certain of the answer.

"It's a legitimate question," said David Collyer, the former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). "It's not out of the realm of possibility."

The merits of using pipelines are clear: they are the safest, most cost-effective and least carbon-intensive method of transporting oil. The risks are just as indisputable: spills are rare but can be catastrophic, causing significant damage to the environment, especially around bodies of water.

Alberta is craving a new avenue to export its oil, which would allow the province to receive global prices for its crude, rather than selling it at a discount.

Whether oil prices are above $100 US a barrel, as they were in 2014, or sitting at less $30 US a barrel, like now, every dollar less that the province receives, compared to market prices, makes a difference.

"We're stuck in the mud at the moment and we run the risk that we missed the window of opportunity," said Collyer. 

Trans Mountain Pipeline 20160119

RCMP officers stand by as a woman writes a message in chalk during a protest on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Struggling to build

For the better part of the last decade, export-pipeline proposals have struggled to meet the bar set by government, regulators and the public. With Keystone XL and Northern Gateway stalled, the oilpatch still has high hopes that the Trans Mountain and Energy East proposals will one day be built.

"I find it ironic, frankly, that in the same time we've been having this debate in Canada about new pipeline construction," said Collyer. "The United States has built a lot of new pipelines — they have approved oil exports in the U.S., and they have grown production in the U.S. that has exceeded Canada in that time." 

Canada is at a point where we need to decide whether the benefits of pipelines are worth the risks. It's very unlikely that any pipeline project will ever be perfect, cruising its way through the regulatory process without hiccup or resistance.

"You and I both know there will be some set of challenges and the real test, looking forward 20 years, is what are we going to do with oil and gas pipelines?" said Michal Moore, an economist with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

He expects, at some point, there will have to be a Supreme Court ruling to decide some of the First Nation issues facing pipeline proposals.  

'If [Trans Mountain] does not proceed, we are leaving a lot of money on the table foolishly.' - Glen Hodgson, Conference Board of Canada

But considering the oil-price crash, Moore wonders if there still is going to be a market for heavy oil and whether a pipeline project is viable low oil prices continue past the proposed construction dates.  

"The jury is out on that one," he said.

The projects are not cheap. TransCanada's Energy East, for example, could cost nearly $16 billion to build.

Northern Gateway

Enbridge's proposal to ship Alberta oil through northern B.C. is considered a long-shot, at least in the near term

While it received federal approval in 2014 under the Harper government, it was still subject to 209 conditions recommended by the National Energy Board and further talks with aboriginal communities.

Considering the incredible First Nations opposition to the project, experts have all but written it off. More recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wish for a moratorium on crude oil tankers off B.C.'s north coast could prove to be a fatal blow. 

Enbridge 20110511 TOPIX

Natives from the Yinka Dene Alliance march through downtown Calgary in this 2011 file photo, protesting Enbridge Pipeline's Northern Gateway project. (The Canadian Press)

Keystone XL

After seven years of delay, the long road for TransCanada ended in rejection as U.S. President Barack Obama turned down the Keystone XL project in early November 2015.

While the company could propose the project once again, it is currently focused on taking the U.S. government to court, hitting Washington with a lawsuit and a NAFTA claim.

The pipeline would have extended from Hardisty, Alta., to U.S. Gulf refineries in Texas. 

Obama Keystone Pipeline

Demonstrators rally against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House in this January 2015 file photo. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

Trans Mountain

Kinder Morgan worked under the radar for years on Trans Mountain as projects like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL stole headlines. But Trans Mountain is no longer in the shadows.

If any of the four export pipeline projects were to go ahead, experts would put their money on this one.

"Trans Mountain, we think, will still go ahead despite some roadblocks," said Martin King, a commodity analyst with FirstEnergy Capital. 

"The other big one is Energy East ... we'll see how it goes with getting through the regulatory process."

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — a twinning of the system already in place — would generate 34,000 jobs a year and $18.5 billion in revenues for federal and provincial governments over the first 20 years of operation, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

"If this project does not proceed, we are leaving a lot of money on the table foolishly," said the conference board's chief economist Glen Hodgson.

Trans Mountain is far from a slam dunk though as it has faced opposition from First Nations, local residents and the municipal governments in both Vancouver and Burnaby B.C., the location of the existing marine terminal.

Trans Mountain pipeline

Kinder Morgan worked under the radar for years on Trans Mountain as projects like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL stole headlines. (Kinder Morgan)

Energy East

Another of TransCanada's proposals is just as ambitious: trying to ship oil from Alberta across the country to New Brunswick.

Analysts generally think the Energy East project has a legitimate shot at being constructed as much of the pipe is already in the ground. The company wants to convert a natural gas line.

But the project has its challenges, too. It can be awfully difficult to make everyone happy along a 4,600-kilometre route spanning six provinces. There are already concerns in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

TransCanada might find Quebec to be the biggest challenge. The company recently scrapped plans for an export terminal in the province, which decreases the pipeline's economic benefit to Quebec. On Thursday, mayors from Montreal and the surrounding area announced their opposition to the pipeline.

"There is still a good chance Energy East gets built," said Steven Paget, who researches pipelines with FirstEnergy Capital. He suggests the project already has a sort of right-of-way, as it is shipping Canadian oil to Canadian refineries, and New Brunswick is familiar with tanker traffic on its coast. 

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The proposed 4,600-kilometre Energy East pipeline will carry 1.1-million barrels per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Future outlook

While export capacity in Canada is currently not a big problem, the oilsands are expected to grow substantially over the next few decades. Without new pipelines, the oil will need to go somewhere, which could translate to more crude loaded on trains.

Experts wonder if the crude-by-rail industry will have to grow substantially before pipelines are seen as more desirable.

"Maybe that's the end game. Maybe there has to be proof that this oil will move one way or another. Maybe it takes five years to get there," said Paget.

And if the federal government decides pipelines are in the public interest, Ottawa will also have to find a way to balance all the competing interests.

As TransCanada proved with Keystone XL, running up a $2-billion tab alone on during the proposal stage, it's not cheap to introduce new export projects.

With the poor success rate as of late, there may not be many more proposals to come beyond the few currently on the table.

Alberta Oilsands Production

Continued growth of bitumen production is expected in the oilsands.

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