How to Build the World’s Largest Oil Pipeline System

Map of Interprovincial Pipeline System, 1977. Source: Interprovincial Pipe Line Company, Annual Report, 1977.

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Canada is home to what was once the largest oil pipeline system in the world, the Interprovincial. Built by a subsidiary of Imperial Oil called the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company (now known as Enbridge Inc.), this pipeline system has been part of the backbone of Canada’s oil infrastructure since the mid-twentieth century.

Today the system consists of multiple lines that span thousands of kilometres across parts of Canada and the United States from Edmonton in the west to Montreal in the east, passing through the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, and the US states of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and New York. How did this come to be?

Next week at the World Congress for Environmental History, I’ll attempt to answer this question and explain how this private company came to construct and operate such an enormous and critical piece of energy infrastructure. The history of the Interprovincial pipeline system is important to understanding Canada’s so-called, “Great Acceleration,” a period after the Second World War when humanity’s influence of Earth ecosystems intensified, particularly via the mass consumption of high-energy fossil fuels. It was the prologue to the Anthropocene.

To help understand the growth and development of this oil pipeline system, I’ve started to create some GIS visualizations in ArcGIS Story Maps:

The use of mapping and data visualization helps capture some of the scale of this growth and situate it historically. The development of this energy infrastructure correlates with the massive scaling up of energy consumption in Canada as the country moved toward dependence on high-energy fossil fuels (oil and natural gas).

Several historical factors explain how the Interprovincial became the world’s largest oil pipeline system:

  1. Economic nationalism and the advent of Canada’s second oil boom.
  2. Incrementalism or “step-wise construction.”
  3. A nascent environmental movement.
  4. Under-developed environmental regulations.

I’ll obviously go into more detail on these four points in my presentation on Monday, July 22 at 2pm. The key takeaways from this kind of historical study are what it might tell us about how large-scale energy systems are developed and how this past development may inform contemporary energy infrastructure debates.

This work is part of “Silent Rivers of Oil: A History of Oil Pipelines in Canada since 1947,” my new research project. Over the past few years, I worked on a couple of smaller case study projects related to the history of oil pipeline spills in Canada and I’m now starting a larger project that will examine the broader history of the social and environmental consequences of the development, operation, and regulation of long-distance oil pipelines in Canada since 1947.

Readers can learn more and follow this project on my new research project page at:

http://niche-canada.org/silentrivers/

This website will collect all of the publications, research data, and other aspects of this project. It includes a working bibliography of relevant secondary scholarship, data visualizations from some of the statistical research, and blog updates about different aspects of the project. I hope readers will continue to follow this work as it proceeds.

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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and associate dean of programs at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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