05/28/2015 11:00 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT

California oil spill has lessons for Canada, pipeline safety expert says

A day after thousands of litres of oil poured into the water off California's Santa Barbara coast, pipeline safety expert Najm Meshkati was troubled. It wasn't just the damage to the environment. He believed it shouldn't have been possible ... at least, not the way it happened.

"That was very puzzling for me," he says.

Meshkati teaches civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. In 2008, the U.S. government used Meshkati's research to come up with new pipeline safety guidelines. Automatic shut-off valves, he believes, are an essential safety feature.

"We need to have an automatic shut-off valve here," Meshkati says. "Period. No question."

So why, he wondered, did oil continue to pour for hours after the pipe broke? Why didn't the shut-off valve kick in and stop the spill? The answer, it turns out, is quite simple: there was no shut-off valve.

Company argued against local oversight

The valves are mandatory for all oil operations in Santa Barbara County. But federal standards don't require them. More than 20 years ago, the original owner of the pipeline argued in court that it should be regulated by the U.S. government instead of by the county. And it won. But according to Meshkati, that victory may turn out to be very expensive.

"This company may end up spending several millions of dollars to clean up this spill and clean up their act; if they had been proactive and spent a fraction of that developing and implementing that system, and installing that, they could have prevented that," Meshkati says. "I think what happened in Santa Barbara could be or should be a wake-up call for my Canadian friends."

'Show me the beef'

Meshkati has just returned from Banff, Alta., where he spoke at a conference on petroleum safety. He's concerned that when it comes to safety, companies building new pipelines are doing the same that he says Plains All-American Pipeline did in Santa Barbara: the least required by law.

"It's not just that we need to have the technology, we need to have the organization to take care of the technology, make sure that the technology works," Meshkati says. "To make it sufficient we need to have an organization that is cognizant of the hazards and to be proactive."

He wants to see evidence from pipeline companies that they're not just meeting but exceeding Canadian and U.S. safety standards.

"Show me the evidence," Meshkati says. "Show me the beef and I will shut up."

He says pipeline companies on both sides of the border are courting disaster if they only adhere to the minimum standards, because regulators can't police the companies 24 hours a day, all year long.

"That's exactly the difference between a reactive safety culture and a proactive safety culture," Meshkati says. "A reactive safety culture is doomed to death and failure. The proactive safety culture will survive the challenges."