Pipeline regulations and wetlands: 3 questions answered

Wetlands in Canada (Source: Natural Resources Canada)

Wetlands in Canada (Source: Natural Resources Canada)

Wetlands perform a number of important functions such as protecting water quality and providing habitat for at-risk species. The environmental importance of wetlands is so significant that they are the only ecosystem designated for conservation by international convention.

When planning pipeline routes, companies try to avoid wetlands. If this is not possible, regulations help ensure these sensitive areas are protected during pipeline-related activities.

“The National Energy Board (NEB) requires pipeline companies under our regulation to anticipate, prevent, manage and mitigate impacts to wetlands during pipeline construction, operation and abandonment,” explained Dr. Robert Steedman, Chief Environment Officer at the NEB, the federal agency in charge of regulating pipelines that cross provincial or international borders.

Steedman helped answer some questions about the role of regulations in protecting Canadian wetlands.

Why do wetlands need to be protected?

Steedman explained that wetlands perform “unique and important ecosystem functions” including:

  • water quality protection – removing contaminants, suspended particles and excessive nutrients, improving water quality and renewing water supplies
  • providing wildlife habitat – nesting, feeding and staging ground for waterfowl and other wildlife such as reptiles and amphibians, including many species at risk
  • providing spawning and nursery habitat for many species of fish
  • shoreline protection – protecting coastal areas from erosion
  • water storage and retention – helping to reduce flooding
  • recreational activities such as hiking, birdwatching and fishing

Did you know? Wetlands cover about 14 per cent of Canada’s land area.

How do regulations protect wetlands during pipeline-related activities?

Pipeline companies must follow wetland-protection guidelines set by municipal, provincial, federal and international bodies.

The NEB requires companies to have integrity management and environmental protection programs as well as emergency response plans in place when they submit pipeline project applications.

“If needed, the NEB will impose conditions to ensure mitigation measures are sufficient and adequate to protect the environment including wetlands,” said Steedman.

During construction, Steedman explained that mitigation methods can include directionally drilling under wetlands, keeping construciton activities at the appropriate “setback distances” from sensitive areas and restricting activities to times when the ecosystem is the least vulnerable.

After a pipeline is built, the NEB can direct the company to monitor the area to ensure restoration (this is in addition to regular pipeline monitoring requirements). 

How does the NEB ensure companies are complying with regulations?

The NEB uses a number of methods to ensure companies are following regulations. One of these methods is inspection.

“NEB inspectors routinely visit wetlands during pipeline construction to verify compliance with wetland mitigation requirements contained in the project’s environmental protection plan,” explained Steedman.

If a company does not comply with regulations, the NEB could issue a stop-work order, revoke authorization, restrict operations, impose a fine or even press criminal charges.

Environmental protection beyond regulations

Pipeline companies are required by law to protect the environment, but CEPA member companies also know that they have a moral obligation to minimize their environmental footprint. The pipeline industry knows that in order to earn the trust of Canadians, it must continually improve the entire industry’s performance in areas such as environmental protection. To do this, pipeline companies are working together to create industry standards and best practices to help companies go beyond compliance when building and operating in areas such as wetlands.

Learn more about how the industry is working to go beyond compliance:

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2012, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.1 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.