A spate of high-profile oil spills have vaulted the once largely anonymous pipeline sector to the top of newscasts in recent years.
"We have experienced incidents and public confidence has been shaken quite considerably — I think quite rightly so, since several of those high profile incidents resulted in very significant environmental damage, property damage and human tragedy," TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling told a National Energy Board safety forum on Wednesday.
"The worst of what we do in our industry is brought into the living rooms and into mainstream conversation. Public trust has been eroded."
TransCanada is seeking U.S. approval to build its contentious US$5.4-billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect oilsands crude to Texas refineries. The project has faced repeated delays and has been the subject of fierce environmental opposition.
Ian Anderson, the president of Kinder Morgan Canada, told the conference the public is concerned about safety and that accidents have shed new unwelcome light on the industry.
"If we're not safe, we don't grow. If we're not safe, we're not expanding into new markets," he said.
"We recognize that anyone's incident is everyone's incident."
Kinder Morgan is preparing to file a regulatory application for its plan to nearly triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and the B.C. Lower Mainland.
The chairman of the National Energy Board said the two-day forum provides an opportunity to take stock of pipeline companies' best practices and ways to continually improve.
"It is about the fundamentals of what keeps pipelines safe. Our record speaks for itself. Look at the number of incidents and ruptures under the jurisdiction of the National Energy Board. They are few and far between," said Gaetan Caron.
"Any spills are unacceptable and I cannot promise that an accident will not happen again but at the same time our job is to do all we can to prevent future occurrences."
Several of the pipeline bosses said a good record isn't sufficient and all are aiming for zero incidents.
"We have to move forward assuming and trying to meet that zero incident target. Even though our safety record is good today we need to improve it even further," Enbridge (TSX:ENB) CEO Al Monaco told reporters afterward.
"That goes to the discussion around public trust and building that public trust from here."
Scrutiny on Enbridge has intensified since a massive pipeline spill in southern Michigan three years ago.
A regulatory process is underway into Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway proposal to ship 550,000 barrels of crude per day from Alberta to the West Coast. The B.C. government has officially come out against the project in its current form, saying there are unanswered questions about how Enbridge would respond to a spill.
The National Energy Board strengthened regulations for federally regulated oil and natural gas pipelines to make them safer for people and the environment in April.
The amended regulations require companies to do more to address safety, pipeline integrity, security, environmental protection and emergency management.
Board officials said the rule changes were not driven by any recent pipeline spills or public concern over proposed pipelines such as Northern Gateway.
Girling said the entire industry is working together to ensure a safer product and the event is not just paying lip service to the issue.
"This isn't a namby pamby discussion. Safety is the number one priority of this industry," Girling said.
"It doesn't matter how good we are. We're only measured by our last incident. We have to get that to zero. The public expects that and we're going to work hard as an industry."
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