DeSmog

No Environmental Review Required for Canada’s Largest Carbon Capture Proposal

Why is Pathways Alliance exempt from environmental assessment? The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation would like to know.
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Pathways ad
Pathways Alliance bought ads during the Super Bowl and FIFA World Cup promoting the project. Credit: Pathways Alliance

“Are you Canadians crazy?” That was the reaction from U.S. pipeline expert Richard Kuprewicz, when contacted by DeSmog about the proposed Pathways Alliance CO2 pipeline and storage hub that may proceed in the absence of a comprehensive review by either the federal or Alberta governments. 

Internal government documents unearthed by the Narwhal show that Canada’s largest bitumen producers demanded assurances from Ottawa that one of the largest infrastructure projects in Canada would be exempt from the federal environmental assessment act. In Alberta, the member companies of the Pathways Alliance are breaking the project into 126 separate parts in an apparent effort to avoid triggering a provincial environmental assessment. What are they worried the public might find out? 

The Pathways proposal would be Canada’s largest carbon capture and storage project costing a projected $16.5 billion, requiring 600 km of new C02 pipelines from oil sands production facilities in northeastern Alberta to an underground storage area more than three times the size of Prince Edward Island near Cold Lake. 

In dollar terms, this is larger than the Site C dam, the $15.7 billion Go Train expansion in Ontario, or rebuilding the Bruce or Darlington nuclear reactors. Yet if the bitumen industry gets their way, this massive undertaking largely paid for through taxpayer subsidies may move forward without a comprehensive assessment at the federal or provincial level, despite numerous potential impacts on public safety, water conservation and Indigenous rights.

This stealthy approach to regulatory approval is in stark contrast to a very public promotional campaign paid for by six of the largest oil sands companies representing 95 percent of Canada’s bitumen production. Pathways bought commercials during the Superbowl and FIFA World Cup promoting the pipeline. Their Facebook and Instagram ad spend was the third largest in Canada in late 2022. With that scale of purchased profile, you might think the Pathways Alliance would welcome public scrutiny as they finally file documents to regulators on this gargantuan undertaking. 

“The fact that they are trying not to have oversight of this should be raising serious questions,” warned Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc. who has investigated scores of pipeline ruptures over his career spanning over 40 years. “This is a big diameter pipeline. So if this were to rupture, it’s going to release a lot of tonnage. And I don’t say that to scare anybody. I just don’t need to do any more investigations after the fact.”

‘They Thought We Were Dead’

While CO2 is not poisonous, the colorless, odorless gas can displace breathable oxygen causing headaches, convulsions or death depending on exposure times and concentration. CO2 is also heavier than air and can travel undetected at dangerous levels for many kilometers. Vehicles — including those of first responders — can cease to function in high concentrations of CO2. The main Pathways pipeline would be 24 inches in diameter and carry up to 12 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

As CCS and associated pipelines are being scaled up across North America — fueled by subsidies and tax breaks totaling billions of dollars — the risks to human health and local communities are becoming more evident. 

A CO2 pipeline burst in Satartia, Mississippi in February 2020 sending 49 residents to hospital before it was finally shut off four hours later. According to a report from Verite News, many people were close to death when found by first responders. “They found me, my cousin and my brother unconscious, with foam coming out our mouths,” said DeEmmeris Burns, who was fishing with family members near the Satartia leak when the CO2 cloud stalled their vehicle preventing their escape. “They thought we were dead.”

Another CO2 pipeline owned by ExxonMobil ruptured on April 3, 2024 in Sulphur, Louisiana. First responders could only block local roads and wait almost three hours for company crews to plug the leak after they alerted the company of the dangerous spill that caused headaches and fatigue for many residents ordered to shelter in place. 

Is this how pipeline operators are supposed to respond to a CO2 rupture emergency? In both these recent spills, it was local residents — not company technicians — who first alerted authorities. And the time required to resolve these ruptures was measured in hours, not minutes.

Even if a ruptured CO2 pipeline is shut off quickly it can still pose a deadly threat to people due to explosive pressure, lethally cold gas, or carbon dioxide flowing kilometers downslope where the colorless gas can displace breathable air. According to Kuprewicz, a rupture “is still going to release tons and tons [of CO2] even after the valves are closed because it’s going to de-inventory the pipeline.”

The regulatory rush with which Pathways is attempting to have their project approved may also prove counter-productive, as Kuprewicz has noted with other CO2 pipeline proposals in the U.S. “There are a lot of people trying to go for billions of dollars in tax credits in the United States and running into roadblocks because they haven’t really thought their projects through. And that may be the similar situation in Canada.”

Chief Allen Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has already warned the Alberta government that any effort to avoid meaningful consultation could lead to time consuming legal conflict. “Alberta has to realize that without doing an environmental assessment, it will be unable to fulfill its constitutional obligation to consult with ACFN and other local Indigenous communities about the expected impacts of the project on our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights. Not only does this undermine our Treaty rights but it also puts the project at serious legal risk.”

The ACFN and five other organizations signed a letter submitted by Ecojustice to the Alberta government requesting a comprehensive assessment for the project. Alberta’s response to this request (or lack thereof) might set the stage for future time-consuming legal challenges. 

Why so secret? The member companies of the Pathways Alliance can certainly afford to provide the public and regulators comprehensive documentation on their marquee carbon capture project, having posted profits exceeding $35 billion in 2022. The Pathways Alliance was contacted by DeSmog but declined to provide comment by the filing deadline.

The public is already contributing over $7 billion in tax breaks and subsidies, yet more taxpayer largesse is apparently required. Pathways is further demanding the federal government pony up half of the operating costs into the future and provide carbon credits for refined fuel burned outside of Canada. With such a shaky business case and dearth of available details, perhaps this project is already dead-on-arrival? 

Kuprewicz has already seen too many previous pipeline accidents due to poor planning and rushed approvals. He hopes the Pathways project does not create similar problems. “I’m not trying to be nitpicky or anything, I just don’t need to be getting into more failure investigations. I don’t advertise. And I don’t need the business.”

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Mitch Anderson is a Vancouver-based journalist covering climate and extraction industries.

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