Alternatives to Canada's Trans Mountain Pipeline
While the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has encountered a setback with court ruling against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, alternatives are still possible. This is Canada’s second major pipeline setback, the previous setback having been regional political opposition to a converted natural gas pipeline that was intended to carry oil from Western Canada to an oil refinery located near Canada’s Atlantic Coast. A third pipeline setback involves a pipeline that is intended to connect Alberta to Texas.
The nation of Canada is blessed with substantial marketable natural resources for which there are both domestic and international markets. While the province of Alberta is blessed with both abundant oil and natural gas, there are other major deposits of oil and natural gas in the Canadian Arctic as well as offshore in Eastern Canada from the provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Eastern Canadian oil and natural gas can readily be shipped via maritime transportation to a variety of foreign destinations that include the United States and Western Europe.
The economies of the Western Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan depend on pipeline and railway connections to carry their marketable resources to ports located along Canada’s Pacific coast. Canada’s western Canadian railway lines that connect to the Pacific Coast, carry substantial bulk cargo that includes potash, wheat, barley, oats, a variety of dried legumes and mining ores and resources that include potash. The trans-mountain railway lines in Western Canada are strained to capacity. While these railway lines could indeed carry oil and compressed/liquefied natural gas, there is also the need to carry agricultural produce to Pacific ports.
The Northern Ports
Canada has potential ports with railway access located on the combination of James Bay, Hudson Bay and Great Slave Lake which connects via navigable waterway to the Beaufort Sea. While the railway line to the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay is built on permafrost and Tundra, the railway lines to the James Bay community of Moose Factory and to the Town of Hay River on Great Slave Lake, are both built on a more substantial foundation. A warming Arctic region has made possible summer-time maritime access between the northeastern Pacific Ocean and northwestern Atlantic Ocean.
North of Alberta, the Northern Transportation Company participated in a demonstration of computer assisted navigation involving an extended length train of coupled barges, each built to a length of 450 feet and beam of 50 feet. The absence of navigation locks along the Mackenzie River between the Beaufort Sea near the town of Tuktoyuktak and Hay River on Great Slave Lake would allow for operation of extended length trains or tows of coupled barges. During the navigation season, railway trains of crude oil would arrive at Hay River, from points of origin located across both Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The warming Arctic region could extend the navigation season to up to six months, during which time computer-navigation assisted barge trains carrying liquid bulk could navigate the Mackenzie River from Hay River to the Beaufort Sea, where barge-to-ship transfer of oil would occur. Such operation would become feasible should Alberta based oil companies succeed in winning East Asian customers located at destinations such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Future melting of ice along the Canadian side of the Arctic would allow large ships to sail between the Beaufort Sea and northwest Atlantic Ocean.
Arctic ice melting would allow large ships to carry bulk tonnage from ports on Hudson Bay and James Bay to the Beaufort Sea and on toward Far-East Asian destinations. While Canada’s Pacific province and Province of Quebec oppose pipelines passing through their jurisdictions, prospects are more positive that pipelines could connect to ports located on Hudson Bay and James Bay in northeastern Ontario. Trans-Arctic navigation would allow large ships to carry oil from offshore Eastern Canadian locations to Far East Asian destinations while also allowing large ships to carry Western Canadian oil to an Eastern Canadian refinery.
Farmers location in Western Canada grow a variety of produce that includes wheat, barley, oats, lentils, soy and several varieties of legumes which they market to overseas customers. Traditionally, the agricultural produce has been ready to be harvested and transported to overseas markets while northern ports were still operational. In an era of an extended northern navigation season, there is increasing potential to export Canadian agricultural produce through the northern ports and aboard ships that will sail across the Canadian Arctic while the northern navigation passages would still be open to ship navigation.
The setback to the Trans Mountain Pipeline still allows railway tanker car transportation of oil between Alberta and Canadian Pacific ports. For six months per year, Alberta oil could be exported via the combination of Pacific and Beaufort Sea ports, with river transportation also carrying agricultural produce aboard extended length barge trains to the Beaufort Sea for transfer to ships sailing to Asian and possibly European markets. During winter when northern maritime navigation is closed for the season, Canada would export less oil.
Canada’s setback involving a legal court challenge to the Trans Mountain Pipeline opens the door to reconsider the option of the northern transportation option via the Mackenzie River and the Beaufort Sea. A railway line that may need to be upgraded, extends to the shore of Great Slave Lake that could serve as the southern terminus for northern river barge-train transportation. There may also be the option of building an oil pipeline to Hay River where oil storage tanks may be built to assure smooth transfer of oil on to barge trains.
Trains of up to 10 barges coupled in a single file and propelled by coordinated tugs could result in each barge carrying the equivalent of over 300TEUs of agricultural produce. The carrying capacity of barge trains could move substantial volumes of oil and agricultural produce to Beaufort Sea transfer points and at very competitive transportation rates compared to railway transportation. Northern barge-train transportation on the Mackenzie River could become feasible.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.