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A pipeline in peril Add to ...

Yet he believes the Mainline is faced with “long-term issues, fundamental issues that need to be fixed as soon as possible.”

Even those who played a major role in shaping the Mainline admit the path forward looks rough. Gerry Maier led TransCanada, first as president, then as CEO, then as chairman, from 1985 to 1999. He is not optimistic about the pipeline staging a strong recovery. The Mainline will, he says, remain – without it, eastern homes from Saskatoon to Boston would go cold and new natural gas power plants might not have enough fuel. But he warns that the coming years for the Mainline will be tough ones.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a picnic,” he said.

The ‘great pipeline debate’

On the afternoon of June 6, 1956, Dr. John Lorne MacDougall, a Liberal MP from Vancouver, dropped dead in a fifth-floor washroom in the House of Commons. His death came as a shock, not least for the fact that the heart attack appeared to be prompted, at least in part, by a pipeline. Mr. MacDougall had been up past 3 a.m. that day, as debate raged over whether Ottawa should build the $118-million Northern Ontario leg of a country-spanning natural gas connection, and provide financial assistance to Trans-Canada Pipe Lines Ltd. for the remainder.

It had been a vicious political fight. Three other MPs were hospitalized as it proceeded, their ailments also blamed on the stressful intensity of the debate. The day after Mr. MacDougall died, the Louis St. Laurent government succeeded in passing the legislation that would enable the pipeline’s construction.

Winning the “great pipeline debate,” as it would come to be called, came with a price: The next year, voters booted his government from office. But for years, the Mainline worked, its energy nourishing a flourishing western petroleum industry and fuelling an eastern industrial establishment.

“We’d have two or three years where we were going flat out and expanding as quickly as we could. Then suddenly you’d hit two or three years where there would be no expansion,” recalls Bob Reid, TransCanada’s former president of energy transmission, a role that had him overseeing the Mainline. The last period of major growth was in the 1990s, a decade that saw a 65 per cent increase in the Mainline’s capacity. Mr. Reid remembers a three-year rush when the pipe was expanded so quickly that TransCanada “used every contractor that was available and all the pipe capacity that was available.”

But even then, there was worry. While the Mainline was growing, a competing natural gas pipeline, called Alliance, was also moving forward. It offered a direct connection to the Chicago area, and it was embraced by gas producers, who committed to fill it. Every molecule of gas flowing into Alliance was a molecule lost from the Mainline. The frenzied construction period had resulted in too much pipe, a possibility Mr. Reid had warned about.

“I testified before the NEB, saying that I was concerned about building all this capacity,” he recalls. He was told his concern was overstated. “I said something like, ‘Don’t be too sure about that. The sky will fall some day here. Because there’s just too much capacity now.’ ”

He was right. In 2000, the year Alliance entered service, Alberta’s gas output peaked. It has since fallen more than 20 per cent, leaving even more empty pipe.

In other words, vacant space on the Mainline is not new. But the advances in natural gas production sometimes referred to as “the shale gas revolution” have the potential to exacerbate it.

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