Why Pipelines are a No-Go in Canada's Fight Against Climate Change

Opinion by Yiying Jiao.

A wideshot of a pipeline running through a forest.

In order to save itself from being dubbed a hypocrite, and to show some genuine resolutions towards climate change, Canada should steadily but adamantly let goof its pipelines.

The pipeline industry has a dominant presence in Canada. Among Canada’s top seven largest energy companies, the primary business of at least half lies in the midstream (transportation) sector of the oil industry, specifically, operating extensive pipeline networks [1].

97 per cent of the country’s oil and natural gas depends on pipelines to be transported from producing regions to markets, at home and abroad [2]. This dependence makes these steel-coated tubes the arteries of the Canadian energy industry, one of the biggest job creators, tax revenue sources, and GDP contributors [3]. In 2019, 62 per cent of the energy Canadians used to heat their households, cook their food, and power their vehicles still came from burning oil and gas [4]. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the entire country’s “economic and energy security” is tied to its intimate relationship with pipelines [5]. With this in mind, the government has appeared to be overly-protective in battling foreign powers seeking to halt the construction of pipelines.

However, from an environmental standpoint, this dependence on pipelines seems abominable and costly. In 2019, the energy sector was the largest Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitter in Canada [6] and the production end and the consumption end split this responsibility equally [4].

The most high-profile issue here is the emission of carbon dioxide (CO₂). Pipelines are the backbones of large-scale energy trades, which have been causing the country’s annual CO₂ emissions to soar, threatening to cook the planet. With their superior capacity and efficiency in carrying crude oil across long distances, pipelines allow the wells-to-wheels oil lifecycle to spin faster than any other transportation method. Additionally, from fuel use in open burning to pumping station power, the construction, maintenance, and daily operation of pipelines all entail high energy inputs.

Take the contentious Keystone pipeline project. The amount of CO₂ that gets added into the atmosphere as a result of the oil moving around in the pipelines each day is equivalent to putting an additional 5.7 million cars on the road. And the yearly emissions resulting from the pipelines merely functioning properly are comparable to over seventy-thousand houses’ use of electricity [7].

Another less mentioned, but about 25 times more harmful, GHG that has contributed a fair share to this problem is methane [8]. This type of gas has a heat trapping ability way beyond CO₂ [9] and it makes up 85 to 90 per cent of the ingredients in natural gas [10], which is often characterized as cleaner than crude because it emits less CO₂.

The largest source of emissions of this harmful pollutant comes from the leaking of natural gas [4]. These emissions are called ‘fugitive emissions.’ Despite often being considered “safe and reliable,” [11] the sheer length and ageing of pipelines mean that methane could escape at every point of its transportation. Pipeline owners wouldn’t voluntarily fix these cracks since the value of the escaped gas wouldn’t exceed the repairing fee [12]. The federal methane regulations, which require operators to install leak detection systems, conduct regular inspections, and exercise corrective action, are so loose that they only apply to 20 per cent of all facilities [13]. Together, fugitive methane emissions make up about 15 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions [14].

Canada has vowed to embark on the journey to net-zero emissions by 2050 [15], going so far as to enshrine this goal in law [16]. It also established a set of policies seeking to slash emissions by at least 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels in the next ten years [17]. However, if the country was to successfully implement all current and planned measures, the result would be an emission merely seven per cent below the 2005 level, falling far short of the target. [18]

To close this gap, a sharp cut in GHG emissions through fossil fuel decommission is mandatory and pressing. The longer those pipelines keep the industry at work while releasing gas themselves, the more GHGs will keep piling up in the atmosphere, making the road to net-zero longer.

The production and promotion of the “unacceptable” GHG emissions that pipelines have been partaking in are causing them to lose their worth and become a burden for not only the environment but also for the economy. The Canadian energy industry has been implicated in continued exoduses of funds and investors from oil products around the world [19]. For example, a cost-benefit analysis of the Transmountain pipeline expansion project indicates that, under the increased construction cost, the implementation of pro-climate policy, and reduction in oil demand, there’s no way for the project to break even [20].

The relationship between Canada and its pipelines is toxic, just like the gas they keep pumping into the air. Pulling the plug on pipelines and hastening the transition of the energy industry is in the best interest of both the country and our planet.


[1] J. William Carpenter, “The 7 Biggest Canadian Energy Companies,” Investopedia, November 2, 2019, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/markets/091115/7-biggest-canadian-energy-companies.asp.

[2] “What are the different types of pipelines?,” About Pipelines, https://www.aboutpipelines.com/pipeline-101/types-of-pipelines/.

[3] Government of Canada, “Energy and the Economy,” Government of Canada, October 6, 2020. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-and-data/data-and-analysis/energy-data-and-analysis/energy-facts/energy-and-economy/20062#L2.

[4] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Canada: CO2 Country Profile,” Our World in Data, 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/canada?country=~CAN.

[5] Kait Bolongaro, “Canada Escalates Michigan Pipeline Battle by Invoking Treaty,” Bloomberg, October 4, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-04/canada-invokes-1977-treaty-with-u-s-in-enbridge-pipeline-spat.

[6] Government of Canada, “Greenhouse gas emissions,” Government of Canada, October 21, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/greenhouse-gas-emissions.html.

[7] Department of States, Record of Decision and National Interest Determination, March 2017, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Record-of-Decision-and-National-Interest-Determination.pdf.

[8] Government of Canada, “Technical backgrounder: Proposed federal methane regulations for the oil and gas sector,” Government of Canada, August 23, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/climate-action/technical-backgrounder-proposed-federal-methane-regulations-oil-gas-sector.html.

[9] “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 19, 2014, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas.

[10] “Composition and Properties of Natural Gas,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/natural-gas/Composition-and-properties-of-natural-gas.

[11] Government of Canada, “Pipelines Across Canada,” Government of Canada, September 14, 2020, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/energy-sources-distribution/clean-fossil-fuels/pipelines/pipelines-across-canada/18856.

[12] Sarah Derouin, “The Surprising Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Eos, March 1, 2021, https://eos.org/articles/the-surprising-source-of-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[13] Government of Canada, “Technical Backgrounder: Proposed Federal Methane Regulations for the Oil and Gas Sector,” Government of Canada, August 23, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/climate-action/technical-backgrounder-proposed-federal-methane-regulations-oil-gas-sector.html.

[14] Canada’s Methane Gas Problem, Environmental Defence Canada, April 2017, https://environmentaldefence.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/17-72_MethaneLeaks_Primer_FINAl.pdf.

[15] Emma Newburger, “Here’s What Countries Pledged on Climate Change at Biden’s Global Summit.” CNBC, April 22, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/biden-climate-summit-2021-what-brazil-japan-canada-others-pledged.html.

[16] Government of Canada, “Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act,” Government of Canada, August 13, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/climate-plan/net-zero-emissions-2050/canadian-net-zero-emissions-accountability-act.html.

[17] Government of Canada, “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change,” Government of Canada, July 24, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/weather/climatechange/pan-canadian-framework.html.

[18] Canada: Policies and Action, Climate Action Tracker, September 2021,https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/canada/policies-action/.

[19] Geoffrey Morgan, “Why Norway Fund’s Divestment From the Oilsands Could Trigger a Bigger Fund Exodus,” Financial Post, May 13, 2020, https://financialpost.com/commodities/energy/why-the-worlds-largest-sovereign-wealth-funds-divestment-from-the-oilsands-could-trigger-a-bigger-fund-exodus.

[20] Thomas Gunton, Chris Joseph, and Daniel Dale, “Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project,” School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, March 2021, 62-64. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20534119-tmx-cba-report-final-march-21.