10/29/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Canada lags behind U.S. on pipeline transparency

After a long day tending his expansive canola farm near Swan Lake, in central Manitoba, Dan Hacault turns on his computer to try to find out more about what's buried below his cash crops — eight pipelines.

The veteran farmer says he spends hours looking at the website of the federal pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board, but finds it a confusing labyrinth that leads him in circles.

"Sometimes you luck out" and you find what you are looking for, says Hacault, who is also a director with the Manitoba Pipeline Landowners Association. "Usually, it's just by accident."

Hacault may not be the only one frustrated. When it comes to being transparent about pipeline data, a U.S. pipeline watchdog says Canada lags far behind its southern neighbour.

"I was kind of shocked how little there is available in Canada," says Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash., a non-profit group focused on improving pipeline safety.

The group publishes annual reports ranking pipeline regulators across the U.S., at both the federal and state levels.

This past summer, Weimer came to Canada to speak at a safety forum organized by the NEB.

He told an audience made up of oil and gas company heavyweights as well as government representatives that the NEB would rank a "pretty low" — nine out of 30 in the transparency rung — if he used the trust's criteria.

Maps, data in U.S.

Over at the NEB, the head of business operations, Patrick Smythe, acknowledges that its information may not always be available online.

"But if anyone wants any information on any Canadian pipeline that we regulate they can come to us and ask us for that information and we'll provide it," he said.

In Canada, general maps are available from individual pipeline companies, but there is no comprehensive one showing all the systems and their exact locations.

The difference in the U.S. is that any member of the public can go online and view maps of pipelines accurate to about 150 metres right across the country.

The National Pipeline Mapping System allows citizens to search by operator, pipeline name or even the status of the pipeline, whether it's in service or abandoned.

U.S. pipeline maps first went online in 2000, though security fears prompted the government to pull them down after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorism attacks, says Weimer.

They came back online about two years later. "We kind of came to the realization that it was more important for the public to know where the pipelines were than to worry about the terrorists," says Weimer.

Reams of pipeline data is also available about incidents and much of it is downloadable.

A homeowner can look up a company to see how many barrels of oil or gas it spilled in a year, what the associated property damage cost and even details about how often the company was inspected.

U.S. a 'little further ahead,' says NEB

"Once a person realizes that they have a pipeline near their house, the questions they want to know is 'What's the potential impact, am I far enough away from it if something fails?'" says Weimer.

"The second thing they often ask is 'How well has this pipeline been operated, how many incidents has this company had on this pipeline in the last 10 years?'"

Most importantly, the U.S. data covers pipelines and incidents across the country. Nowhere in Canada can the public find out details about pipeline incidents across the country. That's part of the reason why the CBC has produced a map of federally-regulated pipeline incidents over the past decade, gained from access to information data, and is looking to expand it.

At the NEB, Smythe acknowledges that the U.S. is "a little further ahead," and noted that it has a different structure, with a tighter relationship between the national regulator and state counterparts.

"We don't have that same relationship here in Canada," he said.

The NEB only oversees 71,000 pipelines that cross borders and are run by about 90 companies, about a tenth of the overall network. Provinces monitor the remaining 760,000 kilometres that are contained inside their borders.

This past August, the Senate energy committee recommended that the NEB and the Transportation Safety Board, another body that probes pipeline issues, give the public more detailed information about safety issues. 

The committee called for the regulators to produce an interactive map, which would not only tell Canadians about spill amounts but also what caused each incidents.

Smythe says the NEB agreed with the Senate committee recommendations for a website and understands the need for greater transparency. The board plans to consult with Canadians about "what it is they need and how to get it to them."

More demand for raw details

In June, Alberta Energy Regulator, the new body watching over the province's vast internal network of pipelines, took the bold step of posting all pipeline incidents that affect the public.

"The NEB doesn't have that," said Barry Robinson, a Calgary-based lawyer with Ecojustice. "You kind of have to hear through the grapevine that there might have been an incident."

Robinson says that some of the key information the public should have access to is the specific location of a spill and what action regulators took against the company involved.

Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (CEPA), a group representing some of the largest companies, says that the industry strives to present accurate data about their members' 99.999 per cent safety record.

"What has changed is an expectation for the public to be able to parse that data themselves and we welcome that," said CEPA president Brenda Kenny.

At the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Weimer says pipeline data should be as transparent as possible so that the public can make informed decisions about the oil and gas lines crisscrossing their neighbourhoods.

"We feel that we can really help strengthen pipeline safety regulations by getting more people aware that they do have these pipelines and what the impacts can be," he says.

Filling the gaps

The data that the CBC collected for our searchable map suggests that the rate of pipeline incidents has doubled, from one to two incidents for every 1,000 kilometres, between 2000 and 2011.

It was difficult to do much analysis with the data set since some reports were incomplete or had inconsistent information.

NEB said the database provided through access-to-information was a "snapshot in time," and that while its employees didn't always update the records, there are supporting documents in other files.

Weimer notes that the move to more transparency can involve growing pains. When the U.S. began publishing pipeline data, similar holes appeared.

"Because of the transparency, people were able to push to fill in those gaps," he says.

Now, he says, the conversation between industry and interest groups has turned to more important issues, such as the best way to measure pipeline safety and how to make all the data easier to understand.

"That can't happen in Canada at this point because there really isn't any data to argue about," he says.

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