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How Safe Are Pipelines in Canada?

2012/09/09
Rally in Vancouver against the Northern Gateway pipeline and the tankers it would bring to BC's coast.  Photo: straight.com

Rally in Vancouver against the Northern Gateway pipeline and the tankers it would bring to BC’s coast. Photo: straight.com

Proponents of oil pipelines are fond of claiming that pipelines are the safest, most environmentally friendly way of transporting oil.  However, “safe” is a very relative concept.

To get a better idea of how “safe” Canada’s oil pipeline system is, Sean Kheraj, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, used publicly available documents to determine the frequency and severity of oil pipeline failures in Canada.  You can divide Dr. Kheraj’s results into two categories: Alberta and the rest of Canada.  The length of inter-provincial oil pipelines outside of Alberta (or “rest of Canada”) measures around 15,000 km.  Sounds like a lot.  However, pipelines in Alberta add up to 370,000 km!

Here are the numbers.

Inter-provincial pipelines

  • From 2000 to 2009: 427 spills.  63 930 barrels (10 164 000 litres) of liquid hydrocarbons spilled.  That works out to approximately one spill every 8 days and 24,000 litres of liquid hydrocarbons released per spill.

Alberta

  • From 1990 to 2005: 4,769 spills.  That’s a spill every 1.15 days.  But it gets worse…
  • From 2006-2010: 1,647 spills.  174,213 barrels (27,700,000 litres) of liquid hydrocarbons spilled.  That’s more than one spill per day, with an average of 16,800 litres of liquid hydrocarbons released per spill.

In other words, as professor Kheraj has been quoted saying,

You can’t produce a safe system, you can only produce a less risky system. There is no leak proof system.

In my humble opinion, we need two major actions when it comes to oil pipelines in Canada.  First, we need better standards and regulations and greater fines for spills.  Any company building a pipeline will do it as cheaply as possible and will maintain that pipeline as little as possible in order to maximize profits.  That’s not cynicism, it’s the reality of our economic system.  So it is up to governments to hold those companies to a higher standard and to make every spill hurt, financially speaking of course.

Second, we have to stop building new pipelines.  Not only are pipelines unsafe, they are incredibly expensive.  That means it takes many years to see a profit from the building of a pipeline.  That means that each new pipeline we build “locks” us into the extraction and eventual combustion of more fossil fuels, for many more years.

Our climate simply cannot afford that.

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