What Is the Northern Gateway Pipeline?

A Primer for the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project

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Robert McGouey/All Canada Photos/Getty

The Northern Gateway Project is a proposed pipeline system designed to bring crude oil from Alberta's tar sands to a coastal port in northern British Columbia.

The Plan

Northern Gateway is a project actually consisting of a pair of pipelines: one would be a 36-inch pipe carrying crude oil westward from the northern Alberta tar sands, while the other would be a 20-inch pipe transporting natural gas eastward to be used in tar sands processing.

When constructed, the 731-mile long pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of crude oil a day to the coast.

Tar sands are a mix of sand, clay, water, and bitumen. Bitumen is a tar-like, semi-solid form of petroleum that is too heavy to flow or be pumped. Tar sands occur in large deposits in western Canada, where they are mined extensively. Crude oil is extracted from these sands, making over half of Canada’s total oil production. Crude oil is transported to refineries elsewhere in Canada and in the United States, playing a significant role in the world energy markets.

The Benefits

While tar sands developers and the Canadian government were waiting for approval by the United States for the Keystone XL pipeline, Enbridge's Northern Gateway Project emerged as a solution permitting oil exports. Keystone XL would have facilitated the transportation of large quantities of crude oil across the border to US refineries.

Northern Gateway would make possible an alternate destination for crude oil by bringing it to tanker ships docking in Kitimat, British Columbia, ready to transport it across the Pacific to vast Asian markets. In addition to revenue from sales and taxes, significant economic benefits are expected, including jobs in the oil fields and along the pipeline’s route during the construction phase.

The Opposition

There has been vocal opposition to the project from aboriginal groups, environmental groups, and a fluctuating proportion of Canadian citizens. A major worry is the risk of spills along the pipeline, which crosses fragile habitats. The developing company, Enbridge, has a spotty record when it comes to spills and other environmental violations. They are responsible for the largest inland oil spill in US history, when nearly a million gallons of crude oil originating from Canadian tar sands spilled in a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, in Michigan.

Another concern is the risks to coastal habitats as large tankers will have to maneuver in and out of the bay where Kitimat is located. Crude oil from tar sands is particularly heavy and a large proportion of it sinks when spilled in water, worsening the impacts on marine habitats and making cleanup more difficult. Beyond the environmental concerns, there are worries that these new industrial activities in the region will drive away tourism and cost non-oil industry jobs.

In addition, the pipeline and the new markets it makes available will stimulate tar sands mining, and there is a host of environmental concerns associated with the extraction, upgrading, transportation, refining, and burning of crude oil from tar sands.

Perhaps most criticized is the entire tar sands industry’s abundant emissions of carbon dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas and a major contributor to global climate change.

A Final Decision?

On June 17, 2014, Natural Resources Canada approved the project, provided a series of over 200 conditions are met. Meeting those conditions could take the developer over four years. However, in November 2015 a new federal government in Canada announced a moratorium on oil tanker traffic in northern British Columbia waters, effectively killing the project. Other alternatives are being developed to carry tar sand oil, including the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the Energy East project.