Alberta’s Pipeline System

My last major project for The Journal was a month-long investigation of Alberta’s pipeline system, designed to answer questions raised by a Sundre-area spill, worries raised by opponents to the construction of a bitumen-carrying pipeline through B.C., and U.S. findings regarding the scope of a major spill along the Kalamazoo River. Published July 7 to lead the new Saturday Insight section, this piece was the main story running alongside insightful political and business analyses written by my colleagues Karen Kleiss and Lewis Kelly (respectfully). Here is some of the top of the story:

“In just 30 days this spring, Alberta pipelines spilled nearly 10,000 barrels of oil, leaking crude and effluent onto privately owned land in northern Alberta and into the waters of a southern Alberta reservoir.

“That spillage amounts to 1.5 million litres in three leaks between May 19 and June 18, or the equivalent of 44 large tanker trucks being emptied into the environment.

“Industry and government officials insist that overall, Alberta’s pipelines are safe, even as environmental groups call for a review of the system, and people outside the province question the wisdom of two massive pipeline projects proposed to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to British Columbia’s West Coast and Texas’s Gulf Coast.

“The Energy Resources Conservation Board reports a current rate of failure per thousand kilometres of pipeline as 1.5, down from 2.2 in 2006.

“Altogether there are nearly 400,000 kilometres of pipelines, including those that move gas, oil, water or other products. …

“Comparative data supporting the safety of Alberta’s pipeline system are hard to come by, however. How does Alberta’s system measure up against others? What is the big-picture environmental impact of spills beyond single incidents? These questions are difficult to answer.

“The province does not keep a single list or map of pipeline leaks. Annual reports from the ERCB outline the causes of failures but provide no break-down of costs to clean up leaks or the impacts on water, land or wildlife. 

“At a cost, an individual can find out who owns the pipeline in their backyard, whether it is active, what it carries, how long it is, when it was built and whether it is coated to prevent corrosion. But there is no straightforward process to get all the details of what runs under the ground from Zama City to Cypress County that does not cost thousands of dollars.

“While Alberta Environment keeps track of serious environmental incidents on paper, there is no database or report that breaks pipeline ruptures out from other environmental disasters.

“The province would have to go through mountains of paperwork to find out how many bodies of water are affected by pipeline spills in a year, or how many animals died after running into leaked oil.

“‘We have a very safe system in Alberta, one of the most tightly regulated systems in the country for pipelines,’ Energy Minister Ken Hughes says. But, he adds, ‘It’s actually quite difficult to get some of the information, and so one of the things that we’re going to be doing is actually seeing if we can’t make this more easily available to people.'”  …


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