Pipelines in Canada: What You Need to Know

Pipelines in Canada: What You Need to Know

pipelines in canada - what you need to know about canadian pipelines

Trans Mountain Expansion Workers - TMX

Pipelines in Canada that move oil and gas are the lifeblood of our modern society. They feed refineries which create the products we use every day such as the fuel necessary to heat our homes, plastics used in our hospitals and asphalt to build our roads.

Today, countless nations across the world choose pipelines as their go-to method for moving petroleum across varying distances over time. The latest forecasts from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that won’t change anytime soon either, with continued growth in demand for both oil and gas in the decades to come. Pipelines have been proven to be the safest method of transporting such fluids.

IEA projection for global oil demand between 2019-2040

The United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Australia, China, India, Pakistan, Germany, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda are just some of the countries where you’ll find recently completed or underway transmission pipelines.

There's no surprise that all these countries also rely heavily on oil and gas for their energy needs. Even Norway, a world leader in renewable energy got well over half of its total primary energy supply from fossil fuels in 2018 and is still exploring for new sources of oil.

But only one of these countries mentioned above can’t get any new transmission pipelines in the ground despite growing global demand for crude oil and natural gas. If you guessed Canada, you’re correct, and probably have already heard a thing or two about the dire situation our country is currently facing.

Canada Needs a Fact-Based, Balanced Conversation on Energy & Pipelines

a majority of canadians support pipelines in Canada

The trouble with getting new pipelines built in Canada truly is an anomaly of the modern world. Over the past decade, misinformation about our energy sector (and subsequently its infrastructure) has been effectively spread by environmental and special interest groups, much of which has been accepted by many Canadians and others across the globe.

But in most instances not the whole story has been told, nor has there been any effort by these opposing groups to have an informed and balanced conversation in the process. A few examples of such dialogue:

> 12 ridiculous factual problems in the latest oilsands smear by National Geographic

> MYTH: Mineable Oil Sands Land Area is the Size of Florida

> Environmental Activists Funded by Non-Canadian Sources Should Concern Us All

> CBC TV's The Weekly - Krause vs. Berman - A Canada Action Viewer's Guide

Let's skip the misinformation this time around. Here’s a factual and balanced conversation regarding almost everything you need to know about Canadian pipelines.

What are Pipelines and How Do They Work?

trans mountain expansion construction pipeline in Canada

Trans Mountain Expansion Underway - TMX

Before we dive in, it’s important to know what these lines are and how they work. Oil and gas pipelines in Canada fall into one of four main categories: gathering, feeder, transmission and distribution.


  • Move oil and gas from wells to processing facilities
  • Can range from about 10 cm (a glue stick) to 30 cm (a ruler stick) in diameter
  • More than 250,000 kilometres (km) exist primarily in oil and gas producing regions of Western Canada


  • Move refined or upgraded product to transmission lines
  • Can range from about 15 cm (a large smartphone) to 30 cm (a ruler stick) in diameter
  • More than 25,000 km exist primarily in oil and gas producing regions of Western Canada


  • Move crude oil and natural gas from producing regions to market throughout Canada and the United States
  • Can range from about 10 cm (a glue stick) to about 120 cm (a large bale of hay), although most are roughly between 25 cm and 46 cm in diameter
  • More than 117,000 km exist in Canada
  • Trans Mountain, Keystone and Line 3


  • Get product (natural gas) to the customer such as our homes and businesses
  • Can range from smaller than a dime (1.27 cm) to more than 15 cm (a large smartphone) in diameter
  • Over 450,000 km exist in Canada

All four types listed above use pumps or compressors to move the internal fluid through the system at a regulated pace. While liquids such as oil are typically pumped at a rate of about 5 km per hour, natural gas is compressed and pushed through at a much faster rate of 40 km per hour. These stations are strategically placed, with natural gas pipelines in Canada having a compressor station every 65 to 160 km along the route, for example.

Safety comes first in our country, which is why operating companies use sophisticated sensors along liquid and gas pipelines to collect important information like pressure, flow speed and temperature. This data is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year from a control room via dedicated satellite or fiber optic feeds.

Where are Oil and Gas Pipelines in Canada Located?

Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin Map

Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin - Packers Plus

Just where are all those pipelines in Canada found? If you’re familiar with natural resources in the Great White North, you shouldn't be surprised that most are in the western provinces.

Large sections of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan are underlain by the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive group of strata (series of layers of rock in the ground) spanning from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Canadian Shield in the east.

The WCSB is made of sedimentary rocks which typically have very desirable properties for oil and gas reservoirs. It’s this massive group of reservoir-prone rocks that hold the third largest oil reserves and fifth largest shale gas reserves in the world.

oil and gas pipelines in canada map

Map of Oil and Gas Pipelines in Canada - NRC

But what may surprise you is that most lines extend almost entirely south to the United States. The U.S. is both our largest customer and competitor on oil and gas markets, accounting for 89% of our energy exports and 70% of our energy imports by value in 2018. It has also significantly expanded its own production and export of oil and gas over the past decade.

It's sad to see that while the petroleum industries of other nations build new pipelines and flourish, Canada has had one heck of a time getting any built that would export oil and natural gas to international markets including those lines linking to storage facilities and refineries in the United States.

So, where exactly are all the underway / stalled / delayed / cancelled pipelines in Canada, and what’s their story?

What Canadian Pipelines Have Been Stalled / Delayed?

There are currently four major transmission projects underway in our country - Trans Mountain Expansion, Keystone XL, Line 3 Replacement Project and Coastal GasLink - all of which have experienced their fair share of stalls and delays.

No surprise, some of these are currently awaiting the results of court challenges to decide on whether construction will proceed. A brief description of each Canadian pipeline and the opposition they have faced below:

Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX)

Inception: 2013
Capacity: 590,000 barrels per day (bpd)
Status: Under Construction

trans mountain expansion map

Trans Mountain Expansion Map - NRC

The TMX is an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline that has operated safely since 1953. Running between Edmonton and Burnaby, it will essentially twin the existing line and increase its overall capacity from 300,000 bpd to 890,000 bpd.

The application to expand Trans Mountain was first made by Kinder Morgan in 2013, then owner of the pipeline who sold the project to Canada in May of 2018 for $4.5 billion. The company cited regulatory uncertainty, continued delays and rising costs in its decision to sell the project.

Soon after, Kinder Morgan backed out of Canada’s energy sector all together.

Opposition to Trans Mountain Expansion

trans mountain has operated safely for over 60 years with no tanker spills

TMX was initially approved by the NEB in May of 2016, then by the federal government in November at the same time the decision was made to cancel the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Shortly after changing ownership from Kinder Morgan to the Government of Canada, approval of the TMX was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal in August of 2018. The decision cited a flawed review process and inadequate consultations with First Nations.

In 2019 the TMX was approved a second time by both the NEB and federal government and has since started construction. However, a coalition of environmental groups and a dwindling number of First Nations have refreshed their challenges to the TMX in court.

The last hurdle to Trans Mountain's construction was defeated in early February of 2020 when the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed legal objections brought forward by four First Nations. The case originally had more opponents, but a few Indigenous groups dropped out of the challenge and subsequently signed benefit agreements with TMX.

Proponents to the project have said that global investor confidence in Canada is on the line with TMX which has now become a major symbol of Canada's inability to get major energy infrastructure built as a result of court challenges and bungled regulatory delays.

Keystone XL (KXL)

Inception: 2008
Capacity: 830,000 bpd
Status: Stalled

keystone xl map

Keystone XL Map - CBC News

Keystone XL is a transnational pipeline expansion which will allow up to an additional 830,000 bpd of crude oil to flow between producers in Canada to refiners in the U.S. Midwest and U.S. Gulf Coast.

Keystone started operations in 2010 with an initial capacity of roughly 700,000 bpd and is currently moving just under 600,000 bpd. Since then, the expansion has faced multiple delays stemming from both government and activists alike.

Opposition to Keystone XL

keystone xl will help canada get a higher price for its oil

The Keystone XL expansion has met stiff opposition from environmental and special interest groups in both Canada and the U.S. Unlike most other pipelines in Canada on this list, however, delays to its construction have been largely a result of happenings south of the border.

Major opposition began with the Obama Administration rejecting TC Energy’s applications for Keystone XL in 2012 and 2015, bringing about lengthy delays to the project that seemed would take a change in government to overcome.

A few years later under the Trump Administration, the U.S. State Department issued a new presidential permit for construction in March of 2017. This was quashed by the U.S. Federal District Court in November of 2018 as a result of an appeal filed by Keystone XL opponents, resulting in stoppage of all construction activities until a new environmental impact statement was conducted.

Fast-forward a few months later to when the Trump Administration issued a presidential permit in March of 2019. Then a few months later, in June, a different lawsuit by environmental and Native American groups was quashed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing a renewed presidential permit which nullifies the previous legal challenge and allowed for construction to proceed.

A few more months later in August Nebraska’s highest court approved Keystone XL's path through the state, resolving a permitting battle that has lasted more than a decade. In early January 2020, another huge win in the courts would finally allow construction to proceed, but existing permit processes and court challenges remain.

Environmental group and Native Americans have reiterated they would renew any failed legal challenges to the project with the hopes of further delaying and / or stopping its construction all together. TC Energy said recently it would have to wait another season until it begins building the $8-billion pipeline.

Line 3 Replacement Project (L3RP)

Inception: 2014
Capacity: 370,000 bpd
Status: Partially Completed

Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Project map

Line 3 Replacement Project, Canadian Side - NEB

The Line 3 Replacement Pipeline project aims to update and expand a near 60-year old pipeline which to-date has transported massive amounts of crude oil between Canada and the U.S.

Since 1962, the original Line 3 has operated with an average annual capacity of 390,000 bpd to 760,000 bpd, although aging has taken its toll on the amount of liquids it can transport. The expansion will restore it to full capacity of around 760,000 bpd.

Today, construction of the Canadian side of L3RP has been completed. Enbridge awaits to complete the project over an estimated 7-to-9 month period in 2020.

Opposition to Line 3 Replacement Project

Indigenous Employment on the Line 3 Replacement Project Pipeline in Canada

Since the announcement of L3RP, multiple court challenges have been issued by environmental and Native American groups. The project was subsequently approved by the NEB with 89 conditions and the Government of Canada by the end of 2016.

In June of 2019, two state agencies in Minnesota said they would suspend the project’s permit approvals until problems with its environmental review were resolved. Those issues were outlined in a state appeals court ruling, namely, an assessment of the effects of a possible oil spill on Lake Superior was not complete. This motion was of course introduced by pipeline opponents.

But some good news. In September of 2019 challenges by tribal and conservation groups were declined by The Minnesota Supreme Court. Furthermore, by the end of 2019 no major impacts on Lake Superior from Line 3 were found in the follow up assessment ordered by Minnesota’s Court of Appeal.

It seems that L3RP is finally going to get built in the coming year, alleviating some of the pinch that Canadian pipelines and producers are currently feeling.

Coastal GasLink (CGL)

Inception: 2012
Capacity: 2.1 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day
Status: Awaiting Construction

Coastal GasLink Map

Coastal GasLink Map - TC Energy

Coastal GasLink is a new 670-kilometre pipeline that will transport natural gas collected in Dawson Creek to the under-construction LNG Canada plant near Kitimat on the west coast of B.C.

It is the only new major natural gas pipeline in Canada to be built in decades. Others like it have been proposed to feed emerging a handful of new LNG plants in British Columbia like Steelhead LNG, for example, but since have been cancelled. Construction for CGL is set to begin early 2020.

Opposition to Coastal GasLink

coastal gaslink pipeline project support first nations

Even TC Energy’s CGL natural gas pipeline, which will feed one of the lowest carbon-intensive LNG plants in the world saw a good amount of opposition since its announcement in 2012. The first was a court challenge by Michael Sawyer who argued that the gas pipeline needed to be reviewed under federal legislation – and not provincial. The NEB ruled against his motion in July of 2019.

Despite CGL signing community and project agreements with all of the elected Indigenous bands along the pipeline route, small groups of Aboriginal hereditary leaders and their supporters set up resistance camps even after a court injunction was issued, ordering them to clear the area. RCMP were tasked with upholding the rule of law and removing these groups from the right-of-way of CGL.

Further attempts to delay CGL followed. In February of 2019, complaints from The Unist’ot’en Clan, a Hereditary house group of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, led to the discovery of ancient artifacts and the suspension of all work on the CGL project. British Columbia’s regulator reported those artifacts were likely placed at the construction site about a month later.

What Pipelines in Canada Have Been Cancelled?

All the stalls and delays and attempts by opposition groups to stop Canadian pipelines is absolutely mind-boggling. How much hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent by energy companies to defend their projects and get to the point in the regulatory process that they did or currently are?

Here’s a handful of cancelled projects that didn’t make it through all the endless regulatory rigmarole and court challenges by well-funded environmental and special interest groups.

Northern Gateway (NG)

Inception: 2002
Company: Enbridge
Cancelled: 2016

Northern Gateway map

Northern Gateway Map - BOE Report

The Northern Gateway project would have been the only entirely new oil export pipeline built in our country in decades. First proposed in 2002, it would have exported diluted bitumen from Kitimat, British Columbia, to Asian markets where it's in high demand.

In 2006, Enbridge delayed the project in favour of accelerating new lines to the United States, but demand from both producers and refiners encouraged them to rekindle the project in 2008 with more capacity – up to 525,000 bpd.

Up until its outright cancellation by Canada’s federal government in 2016, the project faced multiple court challenges amid an already lengthy regulatory process, combining to delay its advancement multiple times. In July of 2016 the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the previous approval of NG, citing a lack of meaningful consultations with many Indigenous communities.

Despite the court’s decision, many First Nations - including Elmer Ghostkeeper of the Buffalo Lake Metis Settlement, Dale Swampy of the Samson Cree Nation and Chief Elmer Derrick of the Gitxsan Nation - were extremely disappointed with the decision which they say was made without their input.

Ghostkeeper said that more than 30 of the 42 bands along the route – about 70% on the pipeline’s right-of-way - were looking forward to sharing in the construction and long-term benefits of the project.

Energy East

Inception: 2013
Company: TransCanada (now TC Energy)
Cancelled: 2017
Energy East map

Energy East Project - TC Energy

Energy East was one of the largest new pipelines in Canada ever proposed, spanning more than 4,500 kilometres from Alberta’s oil sands to eastern provinces and Atlantic coast with a capacity of up to 1.1 million bpd.

The light and heavy oil transported by the now defunct $15 billion project would have been mostly for export, although some would have been used as feedstock for refiners in Ontario and Quebec.

A study performed by CERI found that Energy East would have given eastern Canadian refineries the opportunity to source more feedstock domestically and reduce total GHG emissions by 6.2% in the process, although at a slight financial cost for some such as Irving in New Brunswick. The Irving Refinery is currently responsible for importing nearly all Saudi oil coming into our country.

CERI Study 167 - Replacing Foreign Oil Imported into Canada Would Reduce Emissions

No guarantee was made by Irving - Canada’s largest refinery with an output capacity of over 300,000 bpd - to use any of the transported oil. It’s not currently set up to process heavy crude from Alberta, but rather light oil from Saudi Arabia and the United States which arrives by tanker and rail. However, about 900,000 bpd of Energy East's capacity was already spoken for whether that be for export off the Atlantic coast or for refinery feedstock for plants in Ontario and Quebec.

Resistance to Energy East came almost immediately from various environmental groups and organizations, and later from one of Canada’s largest provinces. In 2014 the Quebec government requested a provincial environmental impact assessment which was ignored by TransCanada, leading to the province seeking a court injunction against Energy East in 2016.

The bungling of the regulatory process combined with an expanded environmental impact assessment that was to include downstream GHG emissions created by the proposed project led to TransCanada cancelling Energy East in late 2017.

Mackenzie Gas Project

Inception: 2000
Companies: ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Aboriginal Pipeline Group
Cancelled: 2017

mackenzie valley gas pipeline map

Mackenzie Valley Gas Project Map - The Canadian Encyclopedia

Also known as the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline / Mackenzie River Pipeline, this 1,200 km project was initially started in the mid 1970s but was later scrapped after an official government inquiry recommended a 10-year moratorium on pipeline development.

The project was resurrected in 2004 with a new proposal to transport natural gas from the Beaufort Sea through the Northwest Territories and connect to pipelines in northern Alberta. In late 2010 the project was approved by the NEB only to have its deadline for the start of construction pass by 2015.

The Mackenzie Gas Project met its own fair share resistance to development by various organizations and environmental groups. The cancellation of this pipeline in Canada, however, was more so due to its lack of financial feasibility in an increasingly competitive regional natural gas market with immense production from American and Canadian shale gas plays.

What Does a Lack of New Pipeline Capacity Mean for Canada?

issuficient pipeline capacity cost canada 20.6 billion in 2018

It means depressed prices for Canadian heavy crude oil and natural gas, which translates into substantial revenue losses for both government and the private sector. A lack of capacity also creates a loss of investor confidence as companies don’t want to invest in new wells and infrastructure if they can’t move any additional oil and gas they produce to market.

canadian oil price discount foregone federal government revenues 2013-2018

We currently export more than 95% of our oil and gas to the United States, a country who has become both a major producer and exporter of both commodities in recent years. As our only major customer – accounting for 89% of our energy exports in 2018 (by value) - the U.S. pays less for Canadian oil and gas which translates into tens of billions of foregone government and private sector revenues.

oil price discount foregone revenues federal government canada 2019-2023

The oil price discount is largely caused by a lack of pipeline capacity in Canada and takes its toll on our economy. For example:

> In 2018, depressed prices for Canadian heavy crude resulted in $20.6 billion in foregone revenues for the Canadian energy industry

> Between 2013 and 2018, the federal government lost $6.2 billion as a result of the oil price discount due to a lack of new pipeline capacity

> Between 2019 and 2023, it’s projected that the federal government will lose another $3.6 million per day (based on the projection of $6.6 billion in foregone revenues)

> During October – November of 2018, Canada was losing up to $80 million a day due to the record-high oil price gap between Western Canadian Select (WCS) and Western Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude

> The Alberta government estimates it loses $210 million a year in revenues for every $1 increase in the oil price differential above $22.40

Putting $Billions Into Context

oil price discount canada could have paid for 8 hospitals between 2019-2023

What could all those billions pay for? For example, the projected loss of $6.6 billion in federal government revenues between 2019 and 2023 could fund:

> 25,000 new teachers in Ontario for the next decade

> 10 new hospitals across Canada

> Federal tax exemption for all residents in Oshawa for 3.5 years

Add on the tens of billions lost in the private sector and you have a real cost to the Canadian economy related to in personal incomes, employment opportunities and consumer spending, especially for those in oil and gas producing provinces. Also see:

> 100,000 jobless energy workers struggle for a place in the new economy

> Canada to lose 12,500 oil and gas jobs in 2019, report predicts, mostly in Alberta

Oilpatch braces for wave of layoffs as companies prepare for spending cuts

A recent report by SecondStreet.org gave some excellent examples on what $196 billion of lost investment into the natural resource sector and pipelines in Canada would equate to that’s relevant in our daily lives.

196 billion lost in Canada's natural resource sector over 5 years - could buy roger arenas in AB

What Other Pipelines are Underway Around the World?

It would be easy to excuse the pipeline problem in Canada as simply part of the transition to a low-carbon future. However, that’s hardly the case. The U.S. has seen a boom in oil and gas production over the past several years which has created huge demand for new pipeline capacity.

A recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that:

> More than 100 crude oil pipeline projects were completed between March 2011 and September 2019

> Crude oil held in pipelines (pipeline fill) in the United States grew from 75 million barrels in March 2011, the earliest data available, to nearly 124 million barrels in September 2019, a 64% increase

> The removal of restrictions on U.S. crude oil exports at the end of 2015, combined with higher crude oil production, allowed an increase in crude oil exports in the Gulf region, which grew from 3,000 barrels per day (b/d) in 2010 to 1.8 million b/d in 2018.

new pipelines underway in texas 2019 - 2021

Texas, for example, has seen several new projects completed or proposed, adding millions of barrels a day to the U.S.’s capacity (above) and allowing the country to step into its supposed future role as the world’s largest oil and gas exporter.

The United States is not alone in expanding its pipeline infrastructure either. Just a few of the other major world oil and gas pipelines underway and / or recently completed:

> Johan Sverdup, Crude Oil – North Sea to Norway

> Pluto-to-North West Shelf, Gas – Australia

> West Kimberly, Oil - Australia

> East-West, Crude Oil – Saudi Arabia

> Iraq-Turkey, Oil – Iraq to Turkey

> Niger-Benin, Crude Oil – Niger to Benin

> Nigeria to Morocco, Gas – Nigeria to Morocco

> East African, Crude Oil – Uganda to Tanzania

> Sudan-Ethiopia, Crude Oil – Sudan to Ethiopia

> India-Nepal, Crude Oil – India to Nepal

Canada’s Pipeline Problem is an Anomaly

crude oil pipelines recently built - canada vs. USA

While countless nations across the globe are expanding their petroleum industries, Canada’s energy sector continues to struggle with restricted capacity and price discounts on its oil and gas. The state of pipelines in Canada is truly an anomaly of the world – here’s a country with an energy industry that is one of the most transparent, well-regulated and environmentally responsible there is, and new projects still can’t get built!

A barrel not produced in Canada – a global leader in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investor criteria – is a barrel that comes from somewhere else. Carbon leakage ensues as oil and gas is produced in countries with little or no environmental regulations or carbon pricing schemes, hurting Canada’s economy and the global environment in the process.

canadian vs usa new crude pipelines since 2013

All other countries understand future energy demand projections well, that global demand for crude oil and natural gas is on the rise and is unlikely to peak by 2040. Canada’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) record should indicate that we should be the “last ones out of the oil and gas production pool.”

> Canada Tops Environmental Index Among Top 10 Oil Exporters

> ESG Infographics: How Canada Ranks Among the World's Top 10 Oil Exporters

> Canada Ranks 6th on Democracy Index 2018 (ESG Criteria)

Support Canadian Pipelines!

Pipelines are the natural conduit of choice to transport oil and gas across various distances over time. They are much safer than rail. It seems that only Canada wants to starve itself of the revenues generated by such new pipelines that would spur innovation, support clean tech research and development and create prosperity while helping to transition to a lower-carbon economy.

It’s time that we all start realizing the incredible benefits new Canadian pipeline projects could bring to people across the country.