The First Post-War Oil Pipeline Hearings in Canada

This post is part of a research log series for Silent Rivers of Oil: A History of Oil Pipelines in Canada since 1947. This series will highlight ongoing research findings associated with this project on the history of oil pipelines in Canada. Follow the series here.

Union Station Building, Ottawa, 1932. Source: Library and Archives Canada, a056590-v8.

The Attorney General of Alberta’s train was late for the hearing being held at the Union Station Building in Ottawa on a mild spring day in early June 1949. “Do you know when that train is likely to be here?” asked Justice Maynard B. Archibald, Chief Commissioner of the Board of Transport Commissioners for Canada.[1] The commission took a short ten-minute recess to await the arrival of Alberta’s 42-year old Attorney General, Joseph Lucien Paul Maynard. Less than one month earlier, the recently chartered Interprovincial Pipe Line Company filed an application to build an oil pipeline from Edmonton to Regina. Maynard was on his way to Ottawa to represent the province in a regulatory hearing that would approve the construction of Canada’s first post-war long-distance oil pipeline.[2] This was the first hearing for a long-distance oil pipeline following the passage of the Pipelines Act (1949), Canada’s new federal statute governing the regulation of oil pipelines that cross interprovincial and international borders.

Part of my research project on the history of oil pipeline development in Canada is concerned with how governments regulated pipelines, interacted with corporations, and considered citizen participation. Pipeline hearings are useful moments for studying these interactions because they are a forum for a nexus of interests where regulators, corporations, and private citizens present evidence and arguments in an effort to shape the development of energy infrastructure. They can be sites of conflict as differing interests clash over questions of economic development, safety, environmental protection, property rights, Indigenous rights, and more. But, was this always the case? What issues did early pipeline hearings address? In what ways did environmental concerns influence early pipeline hearings? Who was represented?

Scan of the cover of the bound transcript records of Board of Transport Commissioner hearings. Source: Board of Transport Commissioners, Transcripts, RG 46, Vol. 416, part 821. Library and Archives Canada.

The image above is a photograph that I took at Library and Archives Canada of the cover of a volume of hearing transcripts. It is a large, heavy document that contains thousands of pages of questions and answers from commissioners and witnesses at hearings before the Board of Transport Commissioners for Canada, a quasi judicial body that was once responsible for the regulation of interprovincial and international oil pipelines. They are an imperfect account of some of the interests involved in debates over energy infrastructure in mid-twentieth-century Canada. Not many researchers appear to have looked at these records. This particular volume seems never to have been called from storage in the archives.

As I have been reviewing the transcripts for the earliest federal regulatory hearings concerning oil pipelines, it’s clear that these hearings were not always forums for citizen participation and the issues that did emerge did not necessarily include the same type of concerns about safety, environmental protection, and Indigenous rights that we might expect to hear today. But while the pipeline politics of today might not be recognizable in these mid-century hearings, they had their own politics nonetheless. The parties represented included familiar faces: corporate executives, corporate lawyers, government representatives, government lawyers, engineers. But they did not initially include private citizens or groups. In fact, these were the only people who appeared before the Board of Transport Commissioners at the first regulatory hearing for a long-distance oil pipeline:

  • H.E.B. Coyne, counsel for Government of Canada
  • R. Kerr, assistant counsel for Government of Canada
  • D.G. Kilburn, director of engineering, Board of Transport Commissioners
  • J.W. Hamilton, counsel for Interprovincial Pipe Line Company
  • R.B. Burgess, counsel for Interprovincial Pipe Line Company
  • Oliver B. Hopkins, Vice President and Director, Interprovincial Pipe Line Company
  • James Armstrong, project engineer, Interprovincial Pipe Line Company
  • Hon. Lucien Maynard, Government of Alberta
  • D.K. MacTavish, Government of Alberta
  • Cuthbert Scott, Canadian Pacific Railway and Northern Alberta Railways
  • C.H.B. Hands, McColl-Frontenac Oil Company
  • Fred G. Smith, Department of Public Works

The entire hearing lasted just one day with a session in the morning and a second session in the afternoon. The questioning of witnesses focused on a handful of key issues. Commissioners were primarily concerned with questions about the financing of the pipeline and its economic viability, but other issues did emerge, including broader discussion of the economics of oil production and future plans for growth and expansion.

“The fundamental objective of the pipe line is to obtain a wider market for the crude production of Alberta,” Oliver B. Hopkins, first vice president of the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company, told the Board of Transport Commissioners at the hearing. [3] This was the central matter at hand and the driving force behind the initial development of what would become one of the largest oil pipeline systems in the world. To realize the full value of Imperial Oil’s discoveries in Alberta, a pipeline would first need to be built to bring that oil to prospective markets.

The only discussion of potential environmental impacts associated with the pipeline came from Fred G. Smith from the Department of Public Works who attended the hearing as an observer to determine whether the Navigable Waters Protection Act would have any bearing on the matter of the Interprovincial pipeline project. He noted that the pipeline would cross a great number of streams and rivers along the proposed route and that “in wishing to put pipe lines underneath any of those streams must of course make application to the Department [of Public Works] for permission so to do.” [4] The commissioners left the question of navigable waters to the Department of Public Works and considered no further matters pertaining to environmental protection or public safety.

The limited extent to which the planning of the pipeline route took into consideration local interests was emphasized by James Armstrong, project engineer, who told the Board that the method of choosing the route of the line was as follows:

We eventually ended up with a route shown on this map through aerial studies and also actual expeditions by car. We drew this route out on a fairly large scale map, and had aerial photographs taken from which we got our aerial survey. From these mosaics that are produced by these aerial photographs we laid out the line missing everything that we could, that would interfere with the installation of the pipe line. From there, from the mosaics, we make the tracings that are given to the land survey parties, and they in turn follow the route shown on these tracings, and make any deviations and record any deviations from the line shown on the tracings for such things as ditches, houses that we could not see from our aerial survey maps. From there, after the ground survey has been completed, our maps are then revised to show and record what the survey party, what route the survey party chose. And then these maps are registered with the Lands and Titles offices of both the provinces we are considering here. [5]

His testimony was a vivid description of what we might call the synoptic view of high modernist projects. The route was literally determined by a view from the sky above.

Route map of Interprovincial pipeline, 1949. Source: Interprovincial Pipe Line Company, Annual Report, 1949, 6-7.

What stands out about the pipeline politics found in these records from 1949 is the complete absence of opposition. Commissioners had critical questions about the financial viability of the line, the role it would play in the development of the oil sector in Western Canada, and the relationship between Interprovincial and its parent corporation, Imperial Oil. But at no point did any commissioner or third-party witness express opposition to the construction of the pipeline. No person or group gave testimony or evidence against the proposal to build an oil pipeline from Edmonton to Regina. Opposition or resistance to oil pipeline development certainly existed at the time. It just didn’t find expression in formal regulatory hearings… yet.

Featured Image: Union Station Building, Ottawa, 1932. Source: Library and Archives Canada, a056590-v8.

[1] Board of Transport Commissioners, Transcripts, 7 June 1949, p. 5504, RG 46, Vol. 416, part 821. Library and Archives Canada.
[2] “Interprovincial Pipe Line Company” Edmonton Journal, 12 May 1949, 29.
[3] Board of Transport Commissioners, Transcripts, 7 June 1949, p. 5508.
[4] Ibid, 5555.
[5] Ibid, 5545-5546.

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