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Behind the protests, pipelines are a solid investment

If you follow the environmental protests that are dogging just about every pipeline plan these days, you might be shying away from an investment in the sector.

After all, who wants to side with a company that could cause North America's next natural disaster?

This is the wrong approach, though, and not only because the share prices of various pipeline companies have shown a remarkable disregard for the environmental protests.

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For one thing, pipelines have attracted the attention of protesters largely because of new plans – not because of existing operations or past environmental disasters.

This is a pity, because in terms of environmental threats it is hard to see these companies in the same category as many other resource companies, including gold miners and oil sands.

While pipelines represent a threat of what could happen, experience suggests that they are relatively good at limiting the environmental damage when things go wrong. The same can't be said for many other companies, which exert a heavy toll on the environment even when things go right.

Apparently, socially conscious investors agree. The iShares Jantzi Social Index Fund – an exchange-traded fund that invests in companies that reflect, in the words of iShares, "a higher standard of environmental and social performance" – has tapped both Enbridge Inc. and Pembina Pipeline Corp. for inclusion.

In other words, pipelines are among a select group of Canadian stocks that are deemed good enough not only for amoral types, but also for investors who like to believe that their investment dollars are being put to good use.

Of course, one could quibble with the Jantzi definition of what constitutes socially responsible investing. But the ETF – or at least the index upon which it is based – at least acts as a decent guideline for right and wrong.

The other issue to consider here is what sort of threat is posed by environmental protesters. Here, the market is telling us loud and clear: very little.

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For all the recent environmental push-back against TransCanada Corp.'s plans to build its Keystone XL pipeline in the United States, you wouldn't know it from the share price. It hit a new record high last week and is outperforming the S&P/TSX composite index this year.

Pembina and Kinder Morgan Inc. have declined from highs earlier in 2012, but only after an exceptional run-up in recent years.

For sure, you should never invest in a company that makes you uncomfortable. But pipelines? Sleep well.

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