09/23/2013 06:32 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST

Canada's Pipeline Boom Brings Message Change

After decades of being out of sight and out of mind, pipelines are booming again in Canada with proposals for 14 new or expanded oil and gas pipeline projects.

Compare that to five years ago, when there was only one project before the National Energy Board (NEB), which regulates interprovincial and international pipelines.

That boom has made pipelines a hot-button issue — and that is changing the way companies try to get public support for their projects.

"Ten years ago pipelines were not a page-20 article, let alone page one article, in the newspaper," said Carl Kirst, managing director of North American pipelines for BMO Capital Markets.

Kirst said the boom is due to a huge increase in supply across North America. More oil and shale gas is being discovered and companies need pipelines to bring it to customers, and that has brought increased public attention because of safety worries.

"It's not just because of demand, it's not just because of politics, but also because of some of these public integrity issues that have happened," Kirst told CBC News in an interview from Houston, Texas.

He added companies are doing "a good job" improving safety, pointing to energy giant Enbridge, which has ramped up spending on maintenance after its disastrous 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

Environmental groups say people are focusing on pipelines for another reason: because they tap into concerns over climate change that are hard to articulate.

"Pipelines are very tangible," said Clare Demerse, director of federal policy for the Pembina Institute. "It's much easier to think about what an oil spill would mean for your community than to think what does the world look like in 40 years if we have 4 degrees of global warming."

Demerse said her organization only recently figured out that it should tap into that public concern as part of its anti-oilsands expansion campaign. "It's only in the last couple of years it's become a big part of our work to look at the transportation of oil after it comes out of the ground," said Demerse.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver quips that pipelines have given him his "Andy Warhol moment."

Oliver has had more than his 15 minutes of fame as the frontman for a Conservative government that sees resource development as crucial to the economy and pipelines as a best way to get oil and gas to new markets.

"It's a subject which, frankly, was like watching paint dry [and] is now very much in the public consciousness," said Oliver in a recent interview. "People are very much aware of the huge economic benefits and they are also aware of the potential environmental impact."

Most of that public attention is focused on about half a dozen proposed major oil pipelines:

- Enbridge's Northern Gateway to the B.C. coast.

- Enbridge's Alberta Clipper Expansion to the U.S.

- Enbridge's Line 9B Reversal in Ontario.

- Kinder-Morgan's Trans Mountain doubled line from Alberta to B.C.

- TransCanada's Keystone XL to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

- TransCanada Energy East to Eastern Canada.

Now, at least one major pipeline company is getting the message that to get anything approved it has to change its sales pitch.

TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Alberta bitumen to Texas's Gulf Coast is badly snarled in U.S. politics and environmental opposition. But TransCanada is clearly hoping to avoid a similar trap with its new Energy East project.

Energy East would replace the gas in TransCanada's cross-Canada pipeline with Western crude oil destined for a refinery in New Brunswick. The company will file a formal application with the NEB early next year. But already it’s stumping across Canada with public meetings and assurances of 11,000 new jobs and careful attention to community impacts.

"The landscape has fundamentally shifted for pipeline and other energy infrastructure development," said TransCanada spokesman Philllipe Cannon.

"We now recognize and have learned from our experience on Keystone XL that we need to get out very early in the project development stage to meet with communities and stakeholders to share information, answer their questions and build their feedback into our plans, for the benefit of everyone."

Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta, said that's a "more reasonable approach."

Leach took pipelines off his course list a few ago. Now pipelines are back. "It's all we talk about in my classes."

Leach said landowners are more aware and plugged in and companies have to take that into account.

"The companies are learning that landowners are more powerful when they communicate," Leach said. "They can expect more opposition from people who never even thought about pipelines."

Joe Oliver isn't worried about that.

"You know, my experience is that Canadians are open to the facts, open to what science says and open to the vast economic opportunities."

Nonetheless, Pembina's Clare Demerse thinks as the pipeline boom continues, the discussion has fundamentally changed.

"[Prime Minister] Stephen Harper described Keystone as a 'no-brainer.' The reality is, given concerns about climate change and the recognition of the huge environmental footprint of the oilsands, I don't think there are 'no-brainer' pipeline proposals any more."

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