Back in April, it was alleged that the Trudeau government instructed key officials to find ways to approve major pipelines. Conservative MP’s were not impressed, encouraging Trudeau to do more to enhance the oil and gas industry. However, environmentalists were stunned as approval of such pipelines would completely shatter Canada’s climate change commitments for the next 50 years. Fast forward to this month, and Trudeau has already approved the LNG (liquid nitrogen gas) project and is currently debating on allowing one of two pipelines to be constructed in British Columbia. Kinder Morgan Inc’s Trans Mountain is most likely the one to be approved, while Enbridge’s Northern Gateway isn’t. The construction of pipelines would cause a resurgence of jobs in Vancouver and Alberta, where workers have been laid off due to the declining oil and gas industry. However, instead of the impact pipelines have on the economy, I’ll be critiquing it’s effect on the environment.
The Parliament of Canada’s page on pipelines called “Pipelines: Environmental Considerations” is honest. It acknowledges the environmental hazards pipelines present but doesn’t deny their importance in Canada. During pipeline construction and operation, the page says on vegetation: “Vegetation (including old growth forests and rare communities of plants) can be affected by surface disturbance, changes in water flows, the arrival of alien species and air contamination.” On wildlife: “Risks to wildlife can be caused by the removal, alteration and fragmentation of habitat, as well as by noise, changing access and sightlines for predators, and the creation of barriers to movement.” On hydrogeology: “Blasting, grading and tunnel construction could alter both surface and groundwater flow and expose rock formations, which could potentially leach acid or metals.” The website also outlines impacts on soils, geology and terrain, and surface water resources. All of these factors somehow affect vegetation, but this is only when the pipeline is undergoing construction and during operation: leaks and ruptures are a whole different story.
When a pipeline releases its products into the environment, it immediately disrupts the equilibrium present. Petroleum contains a mixture of hundreds of hydrocarbon components with considerably less non hydrocarbon components. Long chains of hydrocarbons have low boiling points. This is important because low boiling points have high toxicity to plants in the short term as their contact with soil microorganisms are deadly. Also, aromatic hydrocarbons act as co-carcinogens and assist in the division rate of apical meristemic cells, contributing to the growth of crown-gall tumours. These hydrocarbons exhibit rapid evaporation, so the long term effects are shadowed. Soil microorganisms exhaust their oxygen supply when trying to break down hydrocarbons, thus their supply to plant roots is greatly decreased, killing the roots. Roots can also die to anaerobic digestion, resulting in toxic hydrogen sulphide.
Completely eradicating the presence of oil from the environment is impossible, however it can be rehabilitated by enhancing the biodegradation of spilled oil. Interestingly enough, fungi, bacteria and plants have varying abilities to break down hydrocarbons. Mycelial enzymes and bacteria have the ability to break down larger hydrocarbons, whereas plants target smaller hydrocarbons and facilitates long term recovery.
Pipelines have become synonymous with controversy over the past 20 years. Most if not all pipelines are met with protests because of their environmental hazards, most famously the Dakota Access Pipeline this year. From an ecological standpoint, oil and gas pipelines can disrupt the nature on relationships within communities almost immediately and thus should always be questioned in necessity.