Are we taking the direct pipeline to disaster?
Linked together, energy-related pipelines criss-crossing Alberta’s surface could easily reach the moon.
The more than 400,000 km of provincially-regulated oil and gas lines are also aging or corroding rapidly. Some are as old as 50 years — 40 per cent were built before 1990.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
While Premier Alison Redford maintains Alberta’s pipeline safety is cause for applause, frequent spills from the aging infrastructure have many questioning the province’s competence to safely manage this massive web.
And a recent government pipeline study has cast further doubts. Critics rightfully want to know how the province concludes in the report that “Alberta leads in pipeline safety and provides the most thorough overall pipeline regulatory regime of all assessed jurisdictions.”
Mike Hudema, of Greenpeace Canada, said that with the frequency of pipeline spills in Alberta, the province has “no legs to stand on to claim that it’s a good jurisdiction.” Hudema said, “Alberta averages about two crude-oil spills every single day. That’s a pretty shocking statistic.”
The much-anticipated study, which involved only industry players — environmental and other public interest groups were excluded — has been given a failing grade by critics who say it’s not even close to addressing the current situation.
“It does not go far enough. It does not talk about the spills we had,” said Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Kerry Towle. “It does not talk about how we could have avoided them. It does not talk about the state of what our pipelines are currently in,” said Towle. Adding that the $450,000 report prepared by Group 10 Engineering “could have been a much better use of taxpayers’ dollars had it gone where it was supposed to go.”
Hudema said Albertans wanted a comprehensive examination of the current pipelines and solutions. “Instead, what they got was a report that really just looked at regulations on paper. It didn’t actually look at any pipeline incidents at all. It didn’t look at enforcement.”
In response to the report, a coalition of 54 groups is demanding Alberta’s auditor general conduct a safety review of the pipeline system, according to a recent report in the Advocate.
The coalition called the report “a failure” since it was merely a review of current regulations. “Albertans deserve a real pipeline safety review,” said Don Bester, president of the Alberta Surface Rights Group. “They deserve an independent review that takes a holistic look at Alberta’s mounting pipeline problems. The auditor general of Saskatchewan already undertook such a review and we hope that our provincial auditor will do the same.”
The Alberta Wilderness Association has joined the howl of protests, calling the report “inadequate,” said Carolyn Campbell, AWA conservation specialist. Its website lists 10 “major pipeline ruptures” in the past two years.
Triggering the report was that unenviable record of pipeline disasters. The 500,000-litre spill of crude oil in the upper Red Deer River from a Plains Midstream Canada 46-year-old pipeline was the third leak in Alberta in June 2012. It was discovered by nearby residents on June 7, not the company. Some of the residents where hospitalized after breathing in the gagging stench of sour gas. The damage to wildlife and its habitat, and farmland, was far-reaching.
So inept is our current monitoring system that Plains initially couldn’t even locate the source of the spill. First it was believed to have occurred in Jackson Creek, which empties into the river. Later it was determined the leak originated from its pipeline crossing the river.
Advocate outdoors columnist Bob Scammell says that in the vast majority of pipeline spills in Alberta, they are first detected by nearby residents — not the companies.
Anthony Swift, a U.S. pipelines safety expert, backs up Scammell’s claims, saying most oil companies’ pipeline-leak detection systems offer few safeguards. “They are missing a large number of very large spills,” said Swift.
Redford visited the Red Deer River spill on June 8, after crude found its way into Gleniffer Lake, 35 km downstream. There she incensed long-time observers of pipeline spills, saying: “We are fortunate in this province that they (pipeline spills) don’t happen very often, and we can have some confidence that when they do happen, we have plans in place to deal with them.”
Former Advocate managing editor Joe McLaughlin responded that the pipeline was “a product of old age, ignorance and lack of oversight. (Spills) will be repeated again, unless and until government regulations insist on major changes for pipeline operators.”
The report fails to address that reality. It’s a grievous oversight that must be remedied. We need a report that looks honestly at pipeline safety, and what needs to be done to improve that safety.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.