12/15/2011 10:35 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

How Safe Really Are Canada's Pipelines?


This year, there has been a lot of attention to proposals to expand the pipeline infrastructure to carry tar sands oil to market. Citizens across North America have been making their voices heard as regulators review plans for new tar sands pipelines like TransCanada's Keystone XL and Enbridge's Northern Gateway, and proposals to change existing pipelines to get more tar sands oil to markets like Enbridge's Trailbreaker project.

The industry claims that pipelines are strictly regulated and safe. The fallacy of this claim has been exposed in the U.S. following the disastrous spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and the 12 leaks sprung by TransCanada's Keystone 1 pipeline during its first year of operation. Last summer, similar concerns were raised about the safety of Canada's pipelines when one leaked 28,000 barrels of oil into Lubicon Cree territory in northern Alberta. Yet there has been little concrete information about whether Canada's pipeline industry is, indeed, strictly regulated and safe, leaving Canadians in the dark about what lurks underground.

Until now, that is. This week's report by the federal Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, included an audit whether companies are complying with regulations established by the National Energy Board (NEB). The picture isn't pretty. It turns out that there's a big difference between regulations to minimize the risk of oil spills existing on paper and companies actually being required to meet those regulations.

For a bit of context, the NEB has oversight over any pipeline that crosses a provincial border, or roughly 70,000 kilometres of pipeline. Three million barrels of oil are moved through Canada's pipelines each day. And, the pipelines are getting old: 32 per cent were built 30-50 years ago and 13 per cent are even older than that.

The audit found gaps or deficiencies in companies' compliance with the regulations in nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of the cases. When gaps and deficiencies were found by the NEB, they only followed up with the company to fix the problem seven per cent of the time. This means that less than one in 10 companies had to do something about their failure to comply with the regulations.

Even more alarming, the audit found that the NEB had failed to review emergency response plans of four out of 10 companies (39 per cent), and for the plans that it did review, all of them were deemed deficient yet only one company was required to actually go back and fix the problems. Without clear plans in place, how prepared is the industry to deal with oil spills when they do happen? As we saw in Kalamazoo, a company unprepared to respond quickly can make a spill go from bad to worse.

The audit exposed a systemic failure on the part of pipeline companies to adhere to the rules put in place. Oil pipelines cross our most cherished rivers, forests and farmlands. Oil spills can threaten drinking water, human health, destroy agricultural land and kill fish and wildlife. Nearly 60 per cent of residents near the spill in Michigan experienced health problems as a result.

Canadians are being asked to take a leap of faith and trust that the industry can build and operate new pipelines safely. These would carry tar sands oil, which is more corrosive and dangerous to ship than conventional crude. Enbridge wants to reverse the flow of oil in its older Line 9 pipeline through Ontario, increasing the pressure inside the pipeline and moving more tar sands oil through it. You can have your say on this project here.

If the pipeline companies aren't acting responsibly with the existing infrastructure, putting us at risk of oil spill, it seems pretty clear that they haven't earned the trust to do more.