To Russ Girling, the chief executive of TransCanada, the relationship between pipelines and climate change is clear: there isn't one.

At an energy conference in Houston last week, Girling said that it was a "fallacy" that pipelines cause either upstream or downstream greenhouse gas emissions. In layman's terms, a pipeline doesn't make you drive your car more, nor does it increase energy production.

"There's millions of miles of pipe around the world, if you took a thousand miles of it out, would it change GHG emissions? The answer is no," said Girling in an interview with CBC News in Houston.

That's a position that's easily accepted by most in the energy industry. It certainly landed at the Houston conference without a murmur, but is not in tune with political sentiment. Canada just introduced rules that will include a calculation of upstream greenhouse gas emissions in pipeline approvals. The United States denied approval of Keystone XL on issues of climate change.

'There's millions of miles of pipe around the world. If you took a thousand miles of it out, would it change GHG emissions? The answer is no.' - Russ Girling, TransCanada CEO

However, Girling thinks that the Canadian government will ultimately agree with him, once it's had the opportunity to do the research.

"What we found in our studies on Keystone, for example, is that a single pipeline doesn't change upstream development or downstream development," said Girling.

The U.S. State Department concluded that Keystone XL would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions because oilsands bitumen would still make its way to market, on rail or by barge, or via other pipelines.

"There have been several studies in that regard, and I suspect that kind of objective data will become part of that analysis, so they can provide a comprehensive answer to this question that a lot of people keep asking. Does a single pipeline cause these things to occur? We know that's not the case, but I think the process has to be robust, that data has to be put on the table so everyone can see it."

Link in the chain

"Of course he would say that," said Mark Jaccard, director of Energy and Materials Research Group at Simon Fraser University.

"Anyone contributing to a problem loves to point out their contribution, by itself, is only one link in the chain and therefore they're not causing the problem. That's the incrementalist approach."

There are two pipeline projects under review by the National Energy Board right now: the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver, and TransCanada's Energy East. For those projects, the federal government said it will consider the greenhouse gas emissions produced in the extraction and processing of the oil they propose to carry.

It's not an easy calculation to make. For example, Energy East is designed to carry 1.1 million barrels per day, or around 400 million barrels over the course of a year. If all of that oil is sourced from the oilsands, the GHG emissions per barrel range from 40 to 225 kilograms, depending on the producer.

That's a big number, but it assumes that the oil doesn't otherwise make its way to market. Recent history has shown that's not the case, as oil is getting to market despite the pipeline stasis in Canada. 

Federal government getting input

Right now the federal government is getting input from industry, economists and environmental groups on how best to make that calculation. It's possible that it will come to the same conclusion as Girling, but not likely.

Michal Moore is an economist with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. He largely agrees with Girling that pipelines are just a conduit to move fluids or gases from one place to another and that environmental control needs to happen when the oil is extracted and when it's burned by the end user.

But that doesn't mean the federal government will consider the pipelines out of context.

"Those days are simply over," said Moore.