Enbridge Inc. marks 60 years of building bridges

Canada's main oil transporter is no stranger to damage control

October 01, 2010

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It’s no accident that Enbridge Inc.’s president, Pat Daniel, personally led about 1,000 employees in the cleanup of its summer oil spill in western Michigan. He took actions that have come naturally to the firm for decades by promptly accepting responsibility, apologizing, facing critical regulatory and media spotlights, and setting up compensation programs of cash, offers to buy damaged homes and wildlife rehabilitation.

Daniel’s company invented Canadian pipeline versions of landowner and community relations. Enbridge’s ancestor, Interprovincial Pipe Line Co., had to be creative. The art of making big industrial projects acceptable to a wary public had to be mastered as an essential for achieving an energy breakthrough that has its 60th anniversary this month.

Clockwise from left: laying pipeline in Ontario; Alberta Premier Ernest Manning, left, and federal industry minister C.D. Howe in 1950; a pipeline control room circa 1961.
Photographs courtesy of Interprovincial Pipeline / Enbridge Inc.

Premier Ernest Manning and Ottawa’s industry minister, C.D. Howe, turned the valve that started black gold flowing through Interprovincial from Alberta to Central Canada and the middle-western United States on Oct. 4, 1950. The ceremony, held at the east Edmonton inlet to the buried energy river, followed epic negotiations and community relations work along the original 1,800-kilometer route to a Wisconsin terminal.

To carve out the first 1,300 kilometers of Canadian right-of-way alone, Interprovincial dealt with 2,100 landowners even though construction planners steered clear of large population centers. All but 41 potential opponents of the line voluntarily signed agreements without demanding legal expropriation formalities as assurance that top compensation dollar was paid. By the time the negotiations and court cases were over, resistance shrank to three last holdouts that stayed actively unco-operative to the bitter end, recalls a privately published corporate history book called Mileposts: The Story of the World’s Longest Petroleum Pipeline.

Interprovincial made feats of obtaining public consent routine during its evolution into today’s 13,500-kilometer network, carrying two million barrels per day of dozens of oil types from molasses-like heavy crude to volatile light products akin to the instantly flammable vapors compressed into cigarette lighters. Rapidly growing oil demand quickly lured the delivery service into sensitive public places. To add 250 kilometers of pipe near Toronto in 1957, deals had to be made with 616 landowners. Co-operation had to be secured from local authorities for 65 highway and railroad crossings.

At the time of its construction, the steel web that transports about four-fifths of Canadian oil production was an environmental and cost breakthrough. Compared to older delivery methods, pipelines reduce safety and environmental risks. By 1964, Interprovincial cut Great Lakes tanker traffic to zero from up to 227 ships per year loaded with 23 million barrels. Pipeline tolls were 75 per cent cheaper than freight rates charged for shuttling Alberta oil to eastern markets in railway tank cars and barges that carried the first deliveries after the 1947 Leduc discovery near Edmonton.

Previously, Canada’s biggest commercial pipeline grid was a 270-kilometer spaghetti bowl of various-sized siphons linking Turner Valley wells with Calgary refineries. The lone long line was a prodigious military feat of temporary Arctic construction that was accomplished far from any settlements and without regard to costs or environmental effects: the 2,650-kilometer Canol system, built by 52,000 mostly novice workers to connect the 1920s Norman Wells oil discovery to Alaskan airfields during the Second World War.

Enbridge’s legacy of expertise includes tidier, economic versions of northern development. For four years, 1969-73, Interprovincial teamed up with rival Trans Mountain Oil Pipe Line Co. and 15 other firms on technical preparations for a proposed megaproject: a 2,720-kilometer overland route from the Prudhoe Bay discovery across Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alberta to Edmonton.

The grand design succumbed to high costs and Canadian environmental resistance against disrupting Arctic caribou migration routes. While it lasted, research into transporting a warm fluid safely across permanently frozen ground was an engineering marvel. Field trials included laying a prototype circle of jumbo pipe, 48 inches (120 centimeters) in diameter, to mimic shipments of 300,000 barrels per day. During a 1970 Arctic royal tour, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne visited the test site on the Mackenzie Delta near Inuvik.

Four years later, Interprovincial again broke new ground for industry by conducting a pioneer version of today’s pipeline environmental impact assessments. The inquiry emerged as a prerequisite for obtaining permission from the National Energy Board (NEB) to build an extension from southwestern Ontario to Montreal.

The federal government supported the project – and backed it with financial guarantees – as a blow for oil supply security, which was a top policy priority in Ottawa during the 1970s “energy crisis.” But there were environmental critics in high places. The Quebec government, for instance, pointed to 21 municipal water intakes downstream from a planned pipeline crossing of the Ottawa River and demanded assurances that there would be no big oil leaks.

Environmental standards were on the rise everywhere in the 1970s. Wisconsin authorities and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed a refined-products terminal project by Interprovincial’s American subsidiary, Lakehead Pipeline, to conduct probes into potential effects on a harbor. In Western Canada, the NEB made a proposed renovation to carry liquid byproducts of natural gas under high pressure wait for further environmental studies.

By 1985, Enbridge mastered the new era of toughened regulation thoroughly enough to complete a new 865-kilometer line south from Norman Wells to the established grid in northern Alberta. Aboriginal leaders boycotted the ceremonial start of deliveries in the Mackenzie Valley town. But the protest centered on rapid departures by construction crews, which abruptly ended spending on local services and left behind few jobs on the automated line, rather than on the project’s scarcely visible environmental effects.

The firm’s treasure chest of know-how also includes a rehearsal for its current megaproject, the proposed Northern Gateway line between Edmonton and a new Pacific tanker terminal. The original scheme, incorporated in 1976 as an industry consortium called Kitimat Pipe Line Ltd., went as far as an NEB construction application before evolving markets and energy policies set it back onto the company’s shelves, to await riper 21st-century times.

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One Response to “Enbridge Inc. marks 60 years of building bridges”

  1. Laura Adams says:

    As resident of Battle Creek, MI, I have been very impressed by the response of Pat Daniel and the people of Enbridge to all of the issues related to the oil spill.

    As a local investigative journalist, I have been very impressed by their transparency and willingness to help me inform my readers as to the truth about their company, their culture and their people, at a time when hysterical allegations in the media, from politicians and from class action attorneys terrified local residents.

    As the friend of a number of employees of Enbridge, I have been deeply impressed by the character shown by one and all, especially Pat Daniel, who has been winning the respect and admiration of a number of people in our community as they get to know him.