VANCOUVER - Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) has offered improvements to its Northern Gateway pipeline to boost safety beyond "state-of-the-art," but British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is looking at a standard much further afield.
Clark said that Norway, one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil, is a model for rigorous safety standards and is perceived to have among the highest spill management capacities in the world.
"We're looking to those models and saying, 'They've minimized the risk, they've figured out how to do this, maybe we can do the same,'" Clark said earlier this week.
According to Norway's independent regulatory body, the Petroleum Safety Authority, safety standards are authored and strictly enforced by oil companies, unions and the government.
The organization's website states that while petroleum operations are never fully secure, the risks of a pipeline spill can be mitigated by training workers, designing quality facilities and regulating safety standards.
Key to Norway's success, the authority said, is collaboration between government and the oil companies.
Environmental advocates in B.C., however, contend that comparing the Enbridge pipeline to those in Norway is like comparing apples to oranges.
Pipelines in Norway pump crude oil from offshore rigs, whereas the Northern Gateway project would carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to northern B.C., where the oil will then be shipped off to Asia.
Environmentalists maintain that bitumen is heavier and more difficult to clean up from waterways. Extracting oil from oilsands is a relatively new technology, and there are no existing response mechanisms that can clean up that kind of spill, argued Karen Wristen, with the Living Oceans Society in B.C.
"There's nothing Ottawa can do in the case of an oil spill, there's nothing anyone can do," she said.
Unlike conventional crude spills — where the oil spreads out across the surface of the ocean — the heavier chemical compounds in oil from the sands sinks to the bottom where it can persist and affect wildlife, she said.
"[In the case of a surface spill], they put a (containment) boom around it to keep it in place, and then they try to sop it up or suck it up," she said. "If it's not going to stay on the surface, you can't use that technology."
Enbridge doesn't consider that an issue. The company says that spilled bitumen does float initially, and in that scenario it would promptly dispatch a response team with equipment to contain "the direct effects of a spill."
"Northern Gateway acknowledges that, in certain conditions, some fraction of the oil may become entrained in the water column, submerge, or sink in both freshwater and marine environments," the company's spokesperson Todd Nogier said in an email.
"This is the case irrespective of whether the oil is dilbit, synthetic crude or conventional crude oil."
The Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit organization in Washington state, said the difficulties of removing diluted bitumen was apparent during a pipeline spill in Michigan two years ago.
Executive director Carl Weimer said response crews used various techniques to trap what was on the surface of the river, and disposed of vegetation that was contaminated with oil.
They also stirred the river bed so the oil that had sunk to the bottom would float back up. But not all of the crude could be captured.
"That surprised people who thought they were ready to clean up," Weimer said. "Over years, different microbes will break (oil) down, but it does a lot of harm in the meantime."
Earlier this month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board criticized Enbridge's response to the Michigan spill. Millions of litres of crude containing diluted bitumen spilled into the Kalamazoo River on July 25, 2010, affecting more than 50 kilometres of waterways and wetlands.
The safety board concluded that Enbridge did not fix a defect on the pipeline that was discovered five years earlier, and that control room staff continued to pump oil after Line 6B ruptured.
The scathing report was followed by Enbridge's announcement last week that it will invest another $500 million in safety improvements to the Northern Gateway pipeline.
The new measures include increasing the thickness of the pipe walls at major river crossings, increasing the number of remotely-operated shut-off valves, and stepping up the number of inspections.
Weimer said thicker walls can absorb more impact, while more shut-off valves can cut off a potential spill earlier.
However, without a rigorous monitoring system, the safety measures will be inconsequential, he said.
"If you don't have a leak detection system that's going to find a leak within a few hours, the thick pipes and the valves haven't done you any good," he said.
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