Can Canada have pipelines and sustainability? A public policy expert weighs in

There is one question at the heart of the pipeline debate:

Must the energy needs of today’s society be met at the expense of future generations?

We believe this doesn’t have to be the case – that there’s room for a balance between stability, sustainability and prosperity. But ours is just one perspective, and as we determine the path of our energy future, we think it’s important to look at all sides of the discussion.

David McLaughlin of CEPA's external advisory panelSo, to get another perspective, we spoke with David McLaughlin, a public policy expert and a member of CEPA’s External Advisory Panel. He is one of Canada’s leading experts and commentators on politics, public policy, and sustainability, and has worked for prime ministers, premiers, and ministers as a chief of staff and deputy minister. McLaughlin also served as a deputy minister in the Government of New Brunswick for Intergovernmental Affairs and Policy and Planning.

We asked McLaughlin if it’s possible to balance our need for energy against our need for sustainability; to balance the economic benefits of the oil and gas industry against the environmental costs.

“It is absolutely possible to draw a balance between pipelines and sustainability,” said McLaughlin. “In fact, it is imperative we do so. However, I prefer the word ‘integration’ to ‘balance’. Balance implies a redressing of something that is out-of-balance.”

Environmental policy is the starting point

McLaughlin explained that oil and gas operators and pipeline companies are already working to minimize their environmental impacts in areas like the wetlands and air quality. But there’s still room to integrate environmental considerations at the beginning, when developing policies and planning projects.

“Canada’s energy sector should actively seek environmental policy – particularly climate policy – to help frame their investment and production decisions,” said McLaughlin. “By working with governments to develop policy on climate, clean energy and responsible development, the industry can increase its transparency and improve its credibility in these areas.”

McLaughlin said that this collaboration with government and regulators is already happening, and should continue to be a focus for the pipeline industry.

Pipeline companies and sustainability

“The pipeline industry’s sustainability record is in many ways pretty good,” he explained. “It has recognized that more needs to be done and is stepping up its game. That’s good.”

And yet, pipelines have become the choke-point for activists and others seeking to interrupt the ability of fossil fuel producers to get their product to market. This puts industry members in an uncomfortable position between producers and consumers. “In many ways, the industry is being sideswiped for others’ goals and targets and held to a standard where it actually does not control all the levers,” said McLaughlin.

In order to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, McLaughlin explained, pipeline operators must become “gold star environmental performers”. That means:

  1. Doing everything possible to eliminate the prospect of the pipeline spills, accidents or breaches that cause public concern.
  2. Making their own internal operations truly sustainable. “Companies that implement best environmental practices internally tend to become more aware and motivated to address sustainability issues externally. This helps build their enviro-brand.”

How to inform the debate

McLaughlin believes that communication is one of the challenges that the pipeline industry must address. “In order to encourage balanced, informed conversation, the sector must educate, educate, educate; on the facts and the fictions surrounding pipelines and the environment. More information and statistics will help prepare the foundation for a reasoned, informed debate about policies and actions.”

You can read more about pipelines and sustainability in these posts:

  • An academic’s perspective: pipelines are good, but they could get better
  • Do pipeline companies need social licence?


The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 117,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2014, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.