Pipelines: Fuelling us for the future

Exploring Canada’s pipeline system.

By Caroline Fyvie

Do you know how common pipelines are? According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), there are hundreds of thousands of pipelines in Canada’s energy system. The four different types of energy pipelines are:

Gathering Pipelines: Gathering pipelines consist of 250,000 km of small-diameter (4” to 12”) pipelines that move crude oil and natural gas within producing areas, from wells to oil batteries or processing facilities.

Feeder Pipelines: Feeder pipelines make up about 25,000 km of pipelines in western Canada’s producing areas. They transport crude oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids from collection points, processing facilities, and storage tanks to transmission pipelines.

Transmission Pipelines: Transmission pipelines account for 117,000 km of pipelines in Canada. Transmission pipelines are large-diameter pipelines that move crude oil and natural gas within provinces and across provincial or international boundaries.

Distribution Pipelines: Distribution pipelines account for 450,000 km of pipelines in Canada. They are operated by local companies to deliver natural gas to final consumers in industries, homes, and businesses.

It clearly takes many essential pipelines to keep our energy systems running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Not only do pipelines supply us with the fuel we need, but major pipelines create jobs and provide access to international markets. By accessing international markets, Canada benefits by collecting revenues which help pay for all the things Canadians share, including roads, schools, and hospitals. According to Natural Resources Canada, government revenues from energy reached $17.9 billion in 2018.

Even with increasing opposition to fossil fuels from environmental groups, the Canada Energy Regulator reports oil pipelines in Canada have been running nearly full since 2015.

“Prior to the 2020 COVID-related production declines, major crude oil export pipelines were operating at, or near, capacity for several years, as incremental pipeline additions have not kept pace with supply growth. Despite some incremental capacity gains in recent years, industry is attempting to add additional pipeline capacity.” The Canada Energy Regulator reports.

Western Canada’s four major oil export pipelines are the Enbridge Canadian Mainline, the Keystone Pipeline, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and the Express Pipeline. With Keystone XL cancelled, Enbridge Line 3 Replacement project and Trans Mountain Expansion are slowly moving forward, and once completed, will add valuable additional capacity for Canada’s energy industry.

Pipelines are safe and efficient, and they can transport more than just oil and gas, such as low-emissions or zero-emissions fuel like hydrogen. With the possibility of wider hydrogen adoption in future years, Canada should reconsider the benefits and uses of pipelines.

A recent report from the Canada Energy Regulator outlines how hydrogen could be part of the global path to net-zero. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, “Hydrogen molecules can be separated from water, fossil fuels, or biomass and used as an energy carrier, or fuel.”

Hydrogen has the highest energy content of any chemical fuel by weight, and is used as a component of rocket fuel. Canada is already one of the top ten global producers of hydrogen. Canada currently produces about three million tonnes annually, mostly from natural gas.

Hydrogen projects are starting to pop up across the country, with Air Products announcing plans to build a $1.3 billion facility in Edmonton that will produce hydrogen derived from natural gas. Because transporting and storing hydrogen may present challenges initially, all phases of the energy industry are working towards building safe and efficient methods for increasing its use in the current energy mix.

Production, transportation, and consumer use options are all being explored, and in Canada, several groups are working together to test different methods in each area. For example, carbon capture, utilization and storage on the production side, blending hydrogen into natural gas and using a pipeline, or transporting hydrogen by a dedicated pipeline on the transportation side, and blending with natural gas on the consumption side are options being considered around the world.

With a promising future for hydrogen and growing global demand for oil, now is the time to consider a cross-country pipeline that can fulfill current energy needs and the needs of the future.