Regulations and building new pipelines: Who decides?

We hear a lot about new pipeline projects in the media, but who determines if and where a pipeline should be built?

Who decides?

In Canada, private companies operate pipelines. However, these pipelines are heavily regulated by federal and provincial agencies throughout the pipeline lifecycle ­­– from new pipeline applications to pipeline construction, operation and retirement.

When a pipeline company determines it is necessary to construct a new pipeline, they must make an application to the appropriate regulatory body:

For pipelines that cross provincial or international borders, the regulator is the National Energy Board (NEB). 

For pipelines proposed within a province, applications are made to provincial energy regulators. 

“Although a single regulatory body often makes the decision, pipelines must also follow the legislation and regulations of other agencies,” said Bonnie Stowkowy, an independent regulatory and environmental-policy consultant who has worked in the pipeline industry for over 30 years. “These (regulations) include the Species at Risk Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, Fisheries Act and others.” 

How do companies decide on a route?

When a pipeline company makes an application to a regulator for a new project, “the project proponent must show that other routes were considered and that the one in the filed application is the best one,” said Stowkowy.

The best option: Follow existing routes

Stowkowy explained that, where possible, the best option for new pipelines is to follow existing “linear disturbances.” These could be utility corridors, roads and highways, railway lines or other pipeline routes, to minimize the impact on farmland, topsoil and forests.

Greenfield pipelines

If it is not possible to follow an existing linear disturbance and a company must build across undisturbed land (referred to as a greenfield pipeline). According to Stowkowy, the route is refined based on several considerations:

  • Topography and geotechnical assessments
  • Sensitive environmental habitats
  • Plant or animal species that are endangered along the route
  • Archeologically significant areas

“New pipelines also meet minimum setbacks (a regulated distance the line must be ‘set back’) from houses and schools,” added Stowkowy.

How do regulators decide?

It’s all about public interest.

Ultimately, the regulator makes its decision based on if the project is in the public interest. To do this, Stowkowy explained that regulators need information from a variety of stakeholders.

“Regulated companies are required to consult with the public and Aboriginal peoples during all phases of a project,” she explained. “This is to hear any concerns and to give the opportunity to work together on solutions.”

Public consultation must be part of a pipeline application, and it is also part of the regulator’s review process.

“The process may involve a public hearing where submissions from the company, project supporters and people who believe they will be negatively affected are considered,” said Stowkowy.

The decision:

The regulator can approve the project, approve the project but with conditions that must be met in order for construction to proceed or reject the project.

Regulators must take into account both environmental and socio-economic assessments when making their decision.

Want more information on pipeline regulations? Take a look at CEPA’s newly launched Regulatory Roadmap. It’s an interactive, multi-media program that sheds light on the complexities of pipeline regulation in Canada.


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.