Pipeline Dreams Become Reality: Update

Our coverage of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the pipeline debate continues. We examined the proposed pipeline expansion in our first two issues in 2017. A year later, we’re still covering the story which seems to change daily. Paul Burch takes up the story for this issue, getting insight from the Petroleum Services Association of Canada about pipelines and what they mean for the oil and gas industry and the country.

Pipelines are a divisive topic these days. This is interesting since—if done correctly—pipelines have the potential to connect the entire country and set the foundation for continued economic prosperity across Canada, for all of our people.

Pipelines have been getting—in many cases justified—bad press. The public is bombarded with news about the direct environmental concerns around pipe leaks, the damage to the environment from supporting industries, and how the focus on ‘fossil fuels’ undermining the exploration of alternative energies for the future.

Pipelines have also been a focal point for conflict between First Nations, industry and government. In a network of pipe (over 825,000 kilometers long) that criss-crosses the country from Newfoundland to the Yukon, there are bound to be pinch points where serious concerns are raised around the impact to First Nations economic, environmental and culturally sensitive areas.

However, when pipelines are properly maintained and built in a way that considers the cultural history of the local population and are monitored according to Canada’s world-leading standards—they contribute to our everyday life in a way most people don’t take the time to think about.

Time, energy and money being spent debating the necessity of pipelines could be better spent improving the lines we have and extending our capabilities while continuing to be a world leader in safety and environmental standards. At the same time, we could be investing in alternative energies that can keep Canada ahead of the curve globally now and in the future.

“Canada needs an energy mix. Oil and gas will be around for generations,” says Mark Salkeld, President and CEO of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC). “We need to get it more efficiently, we need consumers to use it more efficiently, and we need to reclaim the land more efficiently.”

“We can explore wind and solar because we can afford to do it as a nation—because we have the oil and gas industry to rely on while we do that,” Salkeld states. “Less developed countries are busy trying to survive— using our oil while they develop alternatives.”

The President of PSAC is unsurprisingly passionate about the oil and gas industry and the importance of pipelines. He’s optimistic that Canada could find solutions to the problems surrounding the perception of the industry. With a long history in the industry, he’s seeing positive changes.

“In the last 30 years, there’s been a shift in the model. Now we see many small companies—employed by the giant companies—competing with each other and coming up with the best innovations. PSAC members are the ones who work in the field and live in the communities they work in. They care about the water they’re drinking,” says Salkeld. These are small and medium businesses competing in a global market. They know they need to be cleaner, more efficient and lower cost to get the contracts. That is good for the safety and reputation of the industry.

So why do pipelines always seem to come off as the bad guys?

“We need to build the brand,” says Salkeld, “We need the same sort of support people give to the Roughriders through thick and thin,” he jokes.  “We need the branding that Alberta Beef has developed.” Salkeld notes that PSAC conducts surveys that find 60% of Canadians are aware of and understand the value of the industry—but they don’t speak up. “A small and vocal percentage are against it and want to leave it in the ground. But people that have chopped wood or shovelled coal to stay warm know the value,” he says.

It does seem a bit hypocritical to complain about the oil and gas industry from the comfort of your gas-heated home using a computer made of oil-based products with the internet often powered by non-renewable energy. That’s human nature. We’ve rarely been accused of being a rational species. However, there is much to be done to address the valid concerns around the industry.

In the meantime, the industry appears to be on the road to recovering financially. This should mean companies can allocate more funding to research and development rather than being in survival mode. “Right now, the oil companies are making money. There’s investor uncertainty over concerns about projects getting built,” says Salkeld. “But, folks that are making money don’t have time to comment.”

When asked what it would take to get back to pre-2014 rates, Salkeld’s answer is immediate and succinct. “It would take a Prime Minister supporting the industry.” Salkeld would like the federal government to recognize that we have what the world wants—the product, the processes and the people. “We need to build awareness and pride in our industry,” he continues. “At the end of the day, if you took away all the oil and gas most people would have nothing—they’d be naked and running down the street,” Salked pauses. “Actually, the streets themselves are mostly paved with bitumen—so they wouldn’t even have streets to run down.”

While there are those who don’t think a world without paved streets would be a bad thing, most people just want a balance of safety, comfort, environmental protection and respect. Making the oil and gas industry work for all people is important. “We need to learn from First Nations groups how we can help,” says Salkeld.  “There’s a huge First Nations work force available and we need to learn what we can do to build a strong relationship with them.”

Shaun Soonias, executive director of the First Nations Economic Development Network seemed to echo the sentiment.

“Lots of First Nations are involved in the pipeline industry from an economic standpoint,” he says. “Every First Nation is their own Nation and makes their own decisions for what’s best for their community,” he explains. Decisions regarding economic opportunities such as pipelines—and another controversial example, cannabis retail—are decided by each community. Some communities approach things from their perspective as stewards of the land, looking at how pipelines impact traditional territories for hunting, fishing and areas of cultural significance.

“In the bigger picture,” Soonias says, “there are substantial concerns.”

There are obvious benefits to the organizations involved in building the pipelines. Largely, the economic development organizations are owned by these communities and the benefits flow back into them through various types of support. These projects generate funds for many needed programs. However, they need to be handled in a manner that benefits everyone in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

“Saskatchewan is falling behind Alberta when it comes to working with First Nations companies,” Soonias says of the oil and gas industry.

Alberta recently allocated $1 billion in “set asides” for First Nations companies. While Saskatchewan projects may allocate a certain amount of ‘points’ towards a proposal from a company that identifies as Indigenous owned—Alberta has allocated a billion dollars for projects that will go to First Nations owned companies. This practice ensures that the communities most directly affected by the projects will benefit from them economically. “Alberta is ahead of the game, but Saskatchewan could catch up,” states Soonias. Concrete steps are being taken to bridge the gap between provinces and also to improve relationships in the industry overall.

While global markets are improving and helping the price of oil, people are making real efforts to improve relationships that will advance the industry. Others continue to innovate with technology to ensure we can continue to lead the world in the production, use and reclamation of oil and gas.

What many people also don’t realize is that many of the pipeline malfunctions we see in the news have a human element behind them. Human error can lead to the leaks, spills and explosions that scare the public. Bryan Janz, founder of Pipe Angel, an oil and gas industry technology start-up has seen it in his career. “People make decisions based on the information they have—or don’t have—and sometimes, that can mean an accident,” says Janz.

Janz is among those looking to use technology to reduce that human error. “Machine learning can scour data and look for patterns. Databases can provide information that helps prevent issues. We’ve got tracking abilities from start to finish,” he says. “This means the technology exists to know where products were built, what conditions were present when the pipe was built, inspected, installed, adjusted—the soil conditions it’s sitting in, the pressure it’s under. We can use that info when a problem is detected to predict other places along the pipe where problems may arise.”

Integrating sensor technology, drone technology, vast databases of input from a variety of sources and an integrated management system can make sense of it all. Janz is confident that Pipe Angel and companies like it are helping to alleviate real problems now and in the future.

The environment. The economy. The relationship between First Nations and industry and federal government. The relationship between provincial governments. The relationship between Canada and the world.

“The oil patch is typically thought of as Alberta, northeast British Columbia, and southeast Saskatchewan,” says Salkeld, “But the whole country is linked by the Canadian oil sector.”

With so many parties involved in such a critical issue, it’s easy for pressure to build and tempers to flair. However, we’re in this together. We should be working on solutions to the problems. We’ve got a product people around the world want. We should be working as a country to get it to them.