How is a pipeline route determined?

A pipeline route starts with CEPA members’ commitment to deliver the energy Canadians need in the safest, most efficient way. To determine the route, engineers, environmental experts and hundreds of others evaluate a variety of safety, environmental and technical factors.

An aerial view of a pipeline right of way

An aerial view of a pipeline right of way. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines.


A thorough assessment of the proposed right-of-way and its surrounding natural environment is done to identify the unique features that must be protected throughout the life of the pipeline. It can take years of careful study to find the right route for a pipeline. Here are some of the considerations:

Analyzing environmentally-sensitive areas that need to be avoided, and having environmental experts complete an assessment on the entire proposed pipeline route.

Determining who owns the land and what it is currently used for.

Mapping out existing third-party infrastructure, such as underground structures, power lines, roads and railways.

Working with local communities to understand their needs, concerns and plans.

Avoiding geohazards such as steep slopes, landslides and seismic faults.

Road access
Determining how construction and maintenance teams will access the area where the pipeline is buried – known as the pipeline rightof-way.

Aboriginal communities
Identifying treaty lands, reserves or traditional land use.

Emergency response
Determining the most efficient access for emergency crews and their equipment.

Studying seasonal variations in temperature and weather.

Designing the pipeline

Operators consider a number of factors in the design, including the distance to be traveled, the expected product volumes, and the type of product that will be flowing through the pipe. These factors determine the required thickness of the pipe and how many pumping or compressor stations are needed to keep products flowing safely through the pipe.

A lot of people are involved in the pipeline design stage. Engineers, of course, to design the technical aspects of the pipeline for maximum safety, but many other professionals are very important to this process, including environmental experts, biologists, agrologists, hydrologists, archaeologists, geologists, sociologists and climatologists.

Pipeline design takes many things into consideration, including environmentally-sensitive areas, wildlife, waterways, nearby communities, historical sites, seasonal variations in temperature and climate and terrain.

All kinds of experts, including engineers and environmental professionals, work together to design the pipeline

Once the safest route is determined by a pipeline operator and the preliminary design is complete – covering all aspects of safety and efficiency – then an application is made to the regulator.

Applying to the regulator

The approval of the pipeline route does not happen at the certificate hearing. In fact, that step only takes place if the project receives regulatory approval.

If a proposed pipeline will be more than 40 km long and is to cross provincial or international boundaries, pipeline operators must participate in the National Energy Board’s (NEB) certificate hearing.

If approval is given at the certificate hearing, the next step is the detailed route proposal stage where pipeline operators provide the exact proposed location of the pipeline to the regulator and stakeholders, and show how they assessed the route.

The purpose of the detailed route proposal is for the NEB to determine if the best possible route has been chosen. Once provided to the NEB, the proposed route is made available to the public and landowners through newspaper postings and written notice.

Often thousands of pages long, the application is the result of hundreds of people working for many years.

Engaging landowners

Pipeline construction and operation requires access to land that may be owned, occupied and used by others, including Aboriginal communities, ranchers and farmers. Pipeline company employees meet with these landowners and stakeholders to explain the project, get their feedback and discuss compensation for the pipeline crossing their land (if the pipeline is approved).

This is a relationship for life; operators make sure it is a cooperative and respectful relationship.

welding an energy pipeline

Construction of a pipeline can only take place after a pipeline operator has received regulatory approval and has land permissions and other permits in place. Photo courtesy of Alliance Pipeline.

aerial view of a pipeline route

Pipeline operators choose a pipeline route that delivers product in the safest and most-efficient way possible. Photo courtesy of Alliance Pipeline.

pipeline route alongside a lake

Protecting the environment is a critical part of routing and design, and involves many experts conducting thorough studies. Photo courtesy of TransMountain Expansion.

Engaging all stakeholders

CEPA members engage other stakeholder groups as well. This process – which can last months or even years – allows everyone who will be impacted by the project the opportunity to learn more and have a chance to be heard. Venues like town hall meetings, project open houses, and one-on-one meetings ensure stakeholders can discuss the project with engineers and environmental experts.

The goal is to give people an opportunity to provide input and have their issues or concerns addressed.

Seeking approval

When reviewing the detailed route plans, the regulator will take stakeholders’ concerns into account while considering many other factors, such as safety, security, environmental issues and construction schedules. The NEB will then make a decision on the proposed route. If the pipeline route is approved, the operator gets the land agreements from landowners and the pipeline specifications have been decided, construction of the pipeline can begin.

You Asked

Do the pipelines transport oil for oil based products other than gasoline? Is this demand great enough to need the construction of additional pipelines? - Andrew, Alberta
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