Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline: New Report Spotlights Incredible Threats

In the wake of the State Department’s announcement to delay the Keystone XL decision, another proposed tar sands pipeline is coming under closer scrutiny. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, proposed by Canada’s Enbridge Energy, would stretch nearly 750 miles across Alberta and British Columbia before reaching an inland port. (DeSmogBlog has been following the Northern Gateway Pipeline story in detail.)

A report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pembina Institute, and the Living Oceans Society documents the enormous risk – environmental, economic, and social – to communities and regions along the pipeline and tanker paths, specifically to valuable salmon-bearing rivers and coastal ecosystems, including the habitat of the endangered Spirit Bear. 

The impacts anticipated by the “Pipeline and Tanker Trouble” report include:

  • Compromising the lifestyles of First Nations who depend on the region’s lands and waters for their livelihoods, culture, and health.
  • Threatening the economic well-being of thecommunities of British Columbia that depend on fisheries and forests.
  • Potential devastation from a major oil spill from the pipeline or an oil supertanker, which could destroy economically important salmon habitat, as well as the habitat of Spirit Bears and grizzlies, and whales, orcas, and other marine life that depend on these rich coastal waters.
  • Harm from an oil spill to the Great Bear Rainforest thatthe province and First Nations have worked hard toprotect from unsustainable forestry practices and to shift to a conservation-based economy.

Before getting into the details of the report, a quick bit of background. After tar sands are extracted from Alberta’s Athabasca boreal region, the sticky, heavily viscous muck must be diluted, shipped, and refined to be of any use. Right now, major pipeline systems operated by companies like TransCanada and Enbridge cart a big share of the tar sands crude down to inland refineries in places like Cushing, Oklahoma and Patoka, Illinois.

According to their own literature, suppliers and refiners are desperate to connect the tar sands supply with coastal refineries where the DilBit can be refined into diesel, which fetches a higher price on the international market. In other words, coastal refineries are necessary for exporting the tar sands product, and exporting the tar sands product would be most profitable for the energy companies.

This ultimate export goal was struck a major blow when, as we’ve covered here on DeSmogBlog, a State Department decision on approval of the Keystone XL extension of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline system was delayed. Keystone XL would have linked the tar sands supply with Valero refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, where the low grade diesel could then be shipped overseas to a booming international diesel markets.

Which brings us to the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. The route's risks come in two parts: the pipeline itself, and then the waterways that must be navigated by big supertankers to deliver the tar sands crude to refineries.

As the report makes clear, the threats to the region and its residents along both the pipeline and waterway paths are very real, and quite serious.

First, the pipeline. If constructed, it would cross at least 785 rivers and streams, and the headwaters of three of the most important watersheds – the Mackenzie, the Fraser, and the Skeena – in North America, before reaching an inland port on the Kitimat River.

(Click on the map for a larger PDF version.)

Of the route, report co-author Susan Casey-Lefkowitz wrote, “The geology of this area is complex, and destructive landslides are common.”

Tar sands pipelines seem to be more susceptible to ruptures and spills, and when DilBit does spill, the impacts are even worse than regular crude spills.

Just last year, an Enbridge tar sands pipeline ruptured in Marshall, Michigan, and even twelve months later the town was reeling from the impacts.

After the DilBit is delivered from the pipeline onto supertankers waiting on the Kitimat River, the route that these shipments must take is incredibly precarious. Casey-Lefkowitz writes:

Once it reaches the coast, the tar sands would be transported by supertanker to refineries in Asia, California, or elsewhere. However, first the supertankers would traverse 185 kilometres of inner coastal waters, including the Douglas Channel, before reaching open ocean in the unpredictably dangerous Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance. There is a reason that large oil supertankers have not used these waters in the past: the route poses many navigational challenges for large vessels, even under ideal conditions.

Echoing this point was Katie Terhune of the Living Oceans Society. “History has shown that oil tankers come with oil spills,” said Terhune. “It is not a question of if, but when, a spill will happen.”

The report gets into even more detail:

The risk of an oil tanker spill is elevated along the B.C. coast because the unique topography and poor weather conditions make navigation difficult. The coastline is punctuated by narrow inlets and fjords, dotted with thousands of rocky outcroppings and islands, lined with underwater ledges and shoals, and rife with unmarked hazards. This coast is often battered by winter storms with gale to storm force winds, 10-metre waves, and freezing sea spray. Precipitation and fog often reduces visibility to less than three kilometres. The Hecate Straight—a main body of water for the proposed tanker route—is considered the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world because of quickly changing winds and sea states. Marine vessel incidents along the coast are not uncommon. Between 1999 and 2009, there were 1,275 marine vessel incidents along Canada’s Pacific coast,including collisions, explosions, groundings, and sinkings. The narrow passages of the coast allow little room for error.

With Keystone XL's path to the Gulf Coast now on hold, pressure is mounting to find new coastal outlets for this tar sands crude. While the big oil companies stand to profit enormously from exporting diesel to booming overseas markets, the communities along the pipeline and tanker routes stand to assume all the risks. As this new report makes crystal clear, these risks are enormous, and practically inevitable.


 This area is the gateway to the inside passage to Southeast Alaska and the Alexander Archipeligo, one of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth, best explored by boat.   This whole area is a treasure to be protected.


They should build an onsite refinery and send finished products by pipeline. Oilsand crude is apparently troublesome stuff to send through pipelines.

Until Big Tar agrees to:

1) set a safe maximum limit for the carbon they will shove into our climate system, and

2) pay a carbon pollution tax for the carbon they create and profit from

…there should be no more expansion. The laws of physics don’t give us any other choice that leads to prosperity for Canadians in the long term.

The days of increasingly destabilizing our weather and acidifying our oceans for free and without limits is rapidly coming to a close. Game over. Time to be grown ups and be part of the solution.

Great posting, thanks. I’d like to point out that this pipeline comes with a 100% spill guarantee for every drop.

Any oil that they manage to not spill accidentally into the woods or waters it will definitely be spilled intentionally into our atmosphere when burned. That oil spill into our atmosphere comes with a thousand year money-loss guarantee.

As far as numbers, Enbridge Northern Gateway to Our Atmosphere is listed at 800,000 barrels a day for final capacity. That is 292,000,000 a year. With tar sands, the wells-to-wheels climate pollution that will be enabled by this one pipeline = 150,000,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. That is:

* three times all fossil fuel burning in BC today (“official” climate footprint)

* seven times the savings BC will create if they hit their 33% cut by 2020

* more than nations like Pakistan, Greece or Vietnam burn

Carbon tax paid on that new 150 MtCO2? Zero. Carbon tax revenue if Canadians did decide to levy BC Carbon Tax rate on our Crown-owned carbon running through this new pipeline = $4,490,000,000 every year. From one pipe.

Radically increasing climate damage without paying for it has got to stop.

I have a rather unpopular opinion.  I don’t really care what they do if they can be Carbon Taxed into decline.

Thats basically my philosophy.


The Crown doesn’t own the Carbon.  My understanding is that Environment is federal, but resources are provincial.  The issue came up with Kyoto.  The federal government was going to claim all carbon credits (taxing BC) and tax all carbon (taxing Alberta).  Also, most taxes are on consumption not production or transport. (I believe this is why Alberta was relenting on Kyoto… just before it didn’t go through.)

I feel that taxing on consumption is the best way to go.  The carbon tax on a pipeline would be negligible.  But the Carbon Tax on cars should be substantial.

However, levying a tax on the pipe’s use would definitely be a good plan for BC.

AnOilMan, my understanding is that the carbon is “crown owned” but controlled by the provinces. Like a “crown corporation” run the provinces. The BC Coal Act defines a “Coal Licence” as “Tenure holders have the exclusive right to explore and develop crown owned coal resources  as defined in the Coal Act.” The government of Alberta says “Mineral rights, specifically petroleum and natural gas rights or bitumen rights, must be acquired from the owner of the resource. In Alberta, the provincial government (also known as the Crown) owns 81 per cent of the province’s mineral rights.”

The central point is that the carbon we are talking about – BC coal and Alberta bitumen – are owned by the public via crown grants. We own it. We licence it for extraction. We have the right and ability to tax it as we feel is in the best interest of citizens.

The feds regulate and tax air pollution.

The best solution in my mind is to carbon tax all crown carbon as it is extracted. Let each province keep the revenue. I call this a “Provincial Carbon Tax” or PCT model.

I think the Feds could make a strong case that they should get some of it (GCT) because the  damage comes in the form of air pollution that is equally distributed across Canada and is clearly a federal area of control.

A PCT/GCT carbon tax on crown carbon makes a lot of sense and sort of resembles the Norwegian concept of a soverign wealth fund…but in this case the damage is real and the carbon tax just a way to help Canadians pay for the damage and create a post-carbon alternative economy.

Carbon taxes are coming and the question will quickly be who gets to keep the tax money? Would Alberta rather have tar sand carbon tax money…or let USA have it?

Carbon taxes are coming and the question will quickly be who gets to keep the tax money? Would Alberta rather have tar sand carbon tax money…or let USA have it?

Just some thoughts, but typically you tax at point of consumption rather than production.  Its considered rather poor form for one province to tax another province’s resources.  Retaliation would be mighty and devastating.

Although I liked Kyoto, I’ve been swayed (by non other than Harper) that this is something of a cash grab.  At the very least we should tax and keep the money in Canada.  (IMO we should then plow that into Green Technology.)

This is the point in history when Canada begins duplicating American Republican policies.

Canada is a wealthy oil state. Taxing it into decline in the hope of other industry taking over seems risky. I predict that part way into the pain the whole thing will be abanoned in favor of return to free flowing oil. Lets hope I’m wrong.