PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. - The ability to detect leaks along the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline won't be known until the pipeline is built and pumping oil through the remote wilderness of northern British Columbia, a lawyer for the province noted at a hearing deciding the pipeline's fate.
Chris Jones grilled a panel of company experts on the design of the 1,100-kilometre pipeline that would deliver oil from the Alberta oilsands to a tanker port on the B.C. coast.
"So is what you're telling me that the actual sensitivity of a pipeline — perhaps this pipeline, along with other ones — can only be determined when it's actually been constructed and you're able to test that actual pipeline in operation?" Jones asked on the second day of environmental assessment hearings in Prince George, B.C.
"We have a quite an operating history.... It's not an issue of trust us, wait 'til construction," answered Barry Callele, director of pipeline control systems and leak detection for Enbridge Pipelines Inc.
Testing is and has been under way, Callele said, and test results show the estimates provided in the project proposal are conservative.
"But I guess the answer to my question is still: We don't know until it's been built. Isn't that right?" Jones asked.
"I think we know what we know today. We'll know more at every phase along the pipeline construction project and we'll know emphatically or empirically at the time that fluid withdrawal tests are done at different sections of the pipeline."
Callele said there would be five overlapping leak detection systems on the twin pipelines that would carry diluted bitumen to the tanker port in Kitimat, B.C., and condensate from Kitimat back to Bruderheim, Alta., including aerial surveillance, foot patrols, and 132 monitored pressure valves along the route.
"We will have one of the best instrumented pipeline systems not only in North America, but probably the world," Callele told the panel.
Jones pointed out that according to U.S. data, there were 31 leaks from Enbridge pipelines in that country since 2002, and six of the 10 largest spills by volume in that time were from Enbridge pipelines.
Of those six, none were detected by Enbridge leak detection systems, Jones said.
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake issued a statement late Wednesday saying the government is "extremely concerned" about the answers heard at the hearings.
"The responses from Enbridge/Northern Gateway to cross-examination by our legal counsel are too often incomplete and lacking in commitment," Lake said. "Their answers suggest that the company is not taking the very real concerns of British Columbians seriously."
The government took issue in particular with the company's reliance on manual shut-down, instead of automatic action in the case of a leak being detected.
"One thing that is crystal clear after the last two days is that Enbridge/Northern Gateway is putting off making commitments about including these systems in the pipeline design until after they get approval to proceed," Lake said.
"We believe that the only way to protect British Columbia's interests is to ensure that these commitments are made up front, so that everyone will understand how they intend to run this project."
John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, said outside the hearings that people have concerns about whether the pipeline can be built and operated safely, and the questions being raised in the hearing room are "very legitimate."
But Northern Gateway is a state-of-the-art system, he said.
"Whatever industrial activity you have, it has some element of risk," Carruthers told reporters.
"The real key is to try and get that as low as possible. In our case, we're trying to get that to zero. So that's the direction you're going and you try and do the best you can with processes, with people and with technology."
His sentiments were echoed 800 kilometres away at a conference on pipeline safety organized by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce in Vancouver.
Ziad Saad, a vice-president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, said data collected from members shows there's been about three spills annually for the past decade.
That's better than a decade ago, he said, although zero is the goal.
"We don't pretend that we are here today at zero incidents and we don't pretend that we're going to be there next year," he said. "But that remains the goal. Period. We're always going to strive to have zero incidents of releases or leaks."
Janet Holder, executive vice-president of western access for Enbridge, told the Vancouver meeting the technology to detect leaks has continued to evolve, especially over the last five years.
"There are new technologies we're testing actually as we speak that will find a tiny pinhole leak in a pipeline that could not possibly be found before," she said.
"We work very closely with companies like GE to develop new technologies and new ways to ensure the health of the pipelines."
The conference also heard that tanker traffic off British Columbia's coast will increase dramatically if Northern Gateway and a proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion go ahead.
The number of tankers plying the coast would rise from 100 at present to 550, said Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan and representative of Canadian companies involved in coastal marine transportation, ship escorts and ship repair.
But 600 commercial vessels move each day through the Strait of Dover, in the English Channel, and about 22,000 tankers traverse the Singapore Strait, he said, and they do so safely.
"I do believe tankers can safely navigate the world, we've seen it right here in Vancouver and I know that it can be done for many years to come."
- With files from Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver