Commentary: The facts of energy life

'In reality, almost every American and Canadian is dependent on that continental crisscross of oil and gas pipelines'

By Mark Milke and Lennie Kaplan
Petroleum refinery technician on pipeline. Getty Images photo

This time last year, University of Manitoba Professor of the Environment (emeritus) Vaclav Smil — who wants less carbon emissions but is also the world expert in how energy transitions take place — wrote of some relevant facts of life — energy ones: “Designing hypothetical roadmaps outlining complete elimination of fossil carbon from the global energy supply by 2050 is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking that ignores fundamental physical realities.”

If that’s the fact of energy life for the next few decades, then it makes sense to grasp some other relevant facts: How interdependent US and Canadian consumers are on each other’s oil, natural gas, and the pipeline infrastructure, which carries both.

The pipeline network in the two countries is comprised of 117,000 kilometres worth of oil and gas pipelines in Canada with over 336,000 kilometres in the United States.

That’s 453,000 kilometres worth of “tubes” that carry a variety of crude oil, refined petroleum and natural gas products, with a plethora of jobs, incomes, families and homes dependent on that network.

Specific to just the pipeline industry — skipping oil and gas extraction, refining, and other such activities — an estimated 13,434 full-time jobs depend on Canadian pipelines with 49,970 America jobs supporting the U.S. network. Such pipeline jobs pay well, whether in the U.S. or Canada, at US$77,340 and C$80,155 respectively.

The oil and gas pipeline industry contributes significantly to GDP in both countries: C$9.2 billion for Canada and US$50.5 billion to the American economy.

To compare: the US$ 50.5 billion GDP contribution of the oil and gas pipeline sector in 2019 was nearly one and a half times the GDP of Vermont ($34 billion in 2019), home to America’s only socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders.

In Canada, the pipeline sector at $9.2 billion was worth 35 per cent more than the GDP of Prince Edward Island at $6.8 billion, as of 2017). Or another Canada comparison: The $9.2 billion in pipeline GDP was nearly 20 per cent more than the $7.7 billion combined GDP of two of Canada’s northern territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, in 2017.

The Canada-U.S. pipeline network is a “spider web” of infrastructure interconnectedness. The jobs, incomes and GDP matter directly to over 63,000 Canadians and Americans, and their families. In reality, almost every American and Canadian is dependent on that continental crisscross of oil and gas pipelines.

In 2020, Canada’s pipelines sent an average of 3.2 million barrels of oil per day to where Americans live, work, play, and defend their republic. (Military bases, airplanes, and Humvees are not powered by vegetable oil.) Americans sent 324,000 barrels of oil daily in the reverse direction, to Canada, by pipelines, in 2020.

Natural gas pipelines also matter both ways: Canada sent nearly 7.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas south to the U.S. every single day (in 2019). The U.S sent nearly 2.7 billion cubic feet daily to Canada that same year.

All that natural gas kept tens of millions of families warm in winter and cool in summer in both countries. That natural gas also allowed greenhouses to operate and a lot of propane (also transported by pipelines) to heat homes and power barbeques.

To avoid such pipeline benefits, one would have to live off the land (only) in remote Alaska, or deep in British Columbia’s Kootenays. One would also have to never use anything ever helped along by oil and gas — medical supplies, the transportation of food, or even the axe to chop down a tree for firewood if somewhere along the supply chain that axe was ever delivered to a store by a truck.

Oil and gas pipelines are, fundamentally, a blue collar-activity: According to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a single major pipeline construction project in the United States is estimated to employ 7,000 construction workers and is worth $US 400 million to those workers and their families.

Also, more than 500 workers are needed to construct each 100-mile section of pipeline with the following employed: heavy equipment operators, labourers, welders, truck drivers, foremen, engineers, and quality control personnel.

Those are the facts of energy, pipelines, and modern civilized life.

Mark Milke and Lennie Kaplan are with the Canadian Energy Centre, an Alberta government corporation funded in part by carbon taxes. They are authors of the report, Circling the Earth 11 Times: Key Facts about the Canada-US Energy Pipeline Network.”