Encyclopedia of Canadian pipelines: Keystone XL and Northern Gateway

Protesters carry a mock pipeline in a demonstration opposing the Keystone XL project. Photo by Lauri Gorham.

Enbridge. Northern Gateway. TransCanada. Keystone XL. You've heard the names. You've seen the headlines. But what is the controversy all about?

To understand the players, the issues and why they matter so much to people, here’s a backgrounder on the two corporations, their projects, their friends and their foes.

What is Enbridge?

Enbridge, Inc. is a Calgary-based energy corporation with a reach that extends across North America. Best known for its work in the oil and natural gas industries, it's also branched out to greener alternatives, operating seven wind farms in Canada and the U.S., and solar and geothermal projects.

Although environmentalists disagree, the Enbridge website claims the company is one of Canada’s Greenest Employers.

Established in 1949 as the Interprovincial Pipe Line (IPL), the company’s original pipeline ran from oil fields in Alberta to refineries in the east. Now, Enbridge operates the world’s longest crude oil transportation system, moving over two billion barrels per day and transporting 65 per cent of all western Canada’s oil exports. It controls more than 24,000 kilometres of pipeline across North America.

Currently, Enbridge’s most high-profile project is the Northern Gateway pipeline, intended to run from northern Alberta to the coastal community of Kitimat, B,C., where oil would be loaded on tankers for shipment overseas. Enbridge also has plans for a new line to carry tar sands oil from Fort McMurray, Alta., to the coast of Texas  – a project said to be going head-to-head with TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.

What is TransCanada?

TransCanada is another major North American energy company, also based in Calgary. Like Enbridge, the corporation is primarily focused on natural gas and oil transmission. TransCanada owns more than 57,000 kilometres of natural gas pipeline, spanning the continent and tapping into almost every major gas supply basin.

The company has more than 60 years' experience in the industry, particularly in gas storage and related services. With increasing production out of Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands, developing its oil infrastructure has become a priority.  

TransCanada’s major project, Keystone, is a 3,460-kilometre pipeline transporting oil from Alberta to the American Midwest. The first phase of the pipeline began operating in June 2010; the proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project (Keystone XL) aims to incorporate and extend the current pipeline, taking a more direct route through Montana and South Dakota to another delivery point in Texas.

The Keystone XL pipeline:

TransCanada’s Keystone XL project has become one of the most controversial subjects on the environmental agenda this year. It is, in fact, the extension of an existing crude oil pipeline reaching from Alberta to the American Midwest, which began operating its first phase in 2010.

The second phase of the Keystone project became operational in February 2011, adding another arm that reached further south through Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Keystone XL – the Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion – encompasses phases three and four of the planned TransCanada project. The expanded leg would take a new route, cutting straight across from Hardisty in Alberta southwest to Nebraska, then down to the Texas coast.

The expansion proposes a 2,673-kilometre pipeline that would add as many as 500,000 barrels of oil to the system’s existing capacity of 591,000 barrels per day – meaning the entire Keystone pipeline system would be transporting over 1.1 million barrels a day. According to TransCanada executives, it would be the only pipeline situated to service both the Canadian oil sands and the Gulf Coast refineries.

TransCanada received approval from the National Energy Board for the Canadian portion of Keystone XL in 2010, but U.S. President Barack Obama recently delayed a decision on the American side of the deal. Obama requested a 12 to 18-month review for the pipeline, which analysts said will likely “kill” the expansion altogether.

The decision early in November to delay the Keystone plan came after months of intense activism and pressure from environmental organizations. The environmental group 350.org rallied more than 10,000 people – including several celebrities – to form a human chain around the White House, urging Obama to say “no” to big oil.

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