The sunlight is fading into an early autumn evening. Ray Doering swipes away brambles and branches as he walks through heavy brush. Doering, the manager of engineering for Gateway, is approaching kilometre post 422, where the pipe would cross the clear, rocky waters of the Smoky River. He emerges from the forest onto a quintessentially Canadian scene. The river courses past fallen trees whose bleached torsos lie against three-metre dirt banks etched by the spring torrents.
It is quiet—until a forestry truck rumbles over a nearby bridge, a reminder that even in the places that seem most isolated, industrialization is never far away. Gateway’s route takes it through nearly 1,200 kilometres of mostly isolated and uninhabited territory. But Enbridge will have to build only 23 kilometres of new access road. Of that, only 10 kilometres will be permanent. It will have to build individual crossings over each of the hundreds of waterways—burrowing below some, bridging others, trenching still others—but then, most rivers aren’t as pristine as they look.
“All of these watercourses pretty much have been crossed by other pipeline projects already. For example, the Smoky River here. There’s dozens of pipelines that cross this river,” Doering says as he stands on the shore. That doesn’t make Gateway any easier. Indeed, it is one of the most technically difficult projects Enbridge has ever considered. “This is a very large project, with lots of challenges and lots of complexities,” Doering admits.
Yet he argues that modern safety standards are more rigorous than most people appreciate. Enbridge will spend nearly $50 million drilling holes to assess rock and soil strength to ensure the pipe can safely cross rivers. It has, for the first time, created a strategic watercourse-crossing assessment team—SWAT, for short—whose half-dozen experts in hydrology, fish biology, geology and construction have visited the most sensitive river crossings. In decades past, only 10% of pipeline welds were inspected. Today, 100% are examined, using X-ray and ultrasonic detection tools. The pipe is carefully monitored as it is laid down to ensure it’s not damaged. Once built, the pipeline is tested at pressures of up to 110% of its yield strength. It will typically operate at 80%.
“No National Energy Board-regulated oil pipeline built in the last 30 years in Canada has had a rupture,” Doering says. “That’s really a testament to the quality of the materials, the coatings, the construction and inspection practices we use today. When you hear about incidents, they’re associated typically with much older pipelines.”
At kilometre post 622, the Missinka Pass rises up in a narrow valley from the deep forest, threading between steep cliff walls onto the alpine of the Rocky Mountains. At least, that’s the way it looks on the Google Earth images spinning across the screen in Charles Helm’s home office.
Helm, a doctor, is a South African expatriate who has lived in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., since 1992. An expert on the area, he has written five books on local subjects, helped create 30 hiking trails and is, as much as it remains possible today, an explorer of the vicinity. It was his son and a friend who first spotted evidence of dinosaur tracks alongside a nearby river in 2000, a discovery that has transformed his small coal-mining town into B.C.’s Drumheller—and which has given Helm a keen interest in Gateway.
The pipeline may actually be good for the dinosaurs: Construction crews could unearth remains, and Enbridge has been willing to discuss diverting the line around any major historical find. But Helm’s chief worry is the pass, a remote and pristine home to caribou and grizzly. It isn’t a park—the Gateway route does not cross a single provincial or federal park—but it is “quite special, remote and pristine,” Helm says. He wonders, is it worth the trade-off to bring crude through the area? Why can’t it be sold to the U.S. instead?
“My concern is, are we going to be creating a new highway over the mountains where none has existed before?” he says. “Why does the oil have to come over our mountains? I’m not sure what the ultimate reward would be to a place like Tumbler Ridge. And there is a risk.”
It’s possible no one knows that risk better than Roy Pattison, one of the rare breed of individuals to ever reach Missinka Pass. A man of remarkable talents—he is a trapper, a guide, a pilot, a lumberman, a road builder, a taxidermist and a cowboy—Pattison grew up on the western side of the pass, where he homesteaded when he was 19. He knows the land like no one else.