Alberta’s pipeline safety questioned

Recent oil spills raise concern over water supplies

Calgary’s water supply is not presently at risk from an oil pipeline leak though many Alberta community’s may be.

Calgary’s drinking water is pulled from the Bow and Elbow rivers both of which originate in the Rocky Mountains. Philippe Reicher a spokesperson for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) an umbrella lobby group for the industry says that of Alberta’s 400000 kilometres of pipes no large lines cross source rivers upstream of the city. The Bow River pipeline network for example runs north to south from Hardisty to the Montana border — about 160 kilometres east and downstream of Calgary.

That means a leak from existing lines is not going to contaminate Calgary’s water but the thousands of points at which energy pipelines intersect water courses throughout the province creates the potential for further spills into other regions’ supplies.

This was brought into stark reality when a ruptured Plains Midstream Canada pipeline near Sundre released 3000 barrels of light sour crude oil into the Red Deer River on June 8 — the source for the city of Red Deer’s water supply. It’s the company’s second major spill in as many years.

Ten days later on June 18 a leak in Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline near Elk Point spilled an estimated 1450 barrels of heavy crude. Enbridge says its latest spill did not affect any waterways however June 21 marks the anniversary of another rupture that did. Two years ago a broken Enbridge pipeline gushed approximately 20000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The contamination resulted in the closure of 62 kilometres of the river to the public. Officials also attempted to keep wildlife out of affected areas during cleanup. The majority of that closed section of the river is reopening this week.

Dr. Stewart Rood of the University of Lethbridge says these spills are notable because they happened during and were probably caused by flooding rivers. He says it’s difficult to guess at the effects of oil spills on river ecosystems since there has been surprisingly little research done on the subject.

Following the Plains Midstream spill Rood who has studied the Red Deer River for two decades wondered what the impact would be. He discovered that not only are there a variety of conflicting forecasts for the river’s health but fewer than a dozen studies have ever been done on the issue. It inspired him to act. He and a team from the U of L will study the affects of this spill on and around the river until the cleanup is complete.

“On the one hand we’ve had individuals say ‘oh this is a catastrophe this is a disaster that’ll take a generation to recover.’ And then on the other hand you have individuals with other agencies saying ‘well it’s a fairly slight thing and it’s contained and a year or two from now you won’t even have any evidence it even happened.’ You have two rather contrasting perspectives on this and so relative to my interest and our [research] group’s interest we said ‘well let’s go see for ourselves’” says Rood.

He says his research to date has found that aging pipes such as the 50-year-old one responsible for the Red Deer River spill are especially vulnerable to annual flood cycles particularly when they cross eroding riverbanks.

He also wonders if the impulse to mop up every trace of oil and dig up contaminated vegetation is the best thing to do. He points to a 1994 spill on the Santa Clara River in California. Areas where the cleanup was less intensive seem to have recovered better over the past 18 years than those where soil and vegetation were replaced.

“It’s a reminder that the systems are somewhat resilient” he says. Regardless of what he and his team find Rood believes it’s essential to answer these questions as pipeline systems expand and emerge as a growing public concern in light of the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline proposals.

“It’s quite surprising to me how little formal scientific investigation we’ve had of impacts of the spills like this one on the flood plain zones since the oil spills often happen during floods” he says.

Concern over pipeline safety appears to be well-founded both with these recently well-publicized accidents and numerous others that escape the attention of the media.

The June 18 spill motivated Mike Hudema climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada to issue a statement arguing that “at minimum we need an independent assessment of Alberta’s pipeline safety to show the deficits in management oversight enforcement and infrastructure.”

Currently the provincial government’s quasi-independent Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) regulates the energy industry in Alberta. For its 2010 surveillance report it conducted over 18000 field inspections of pipelines wells and related facilities. The report states there were 687 recorded pipeline failures in 2010 with 30 pipeline operations suspended to address failures. The report also concludes corrosion is the leading cause of pipeline failure.

CEPA has publicly defended the safety of energy pipelines as worries mount.

“One of the assertions made is that aging pipelines are a problem in Canada. That is not true. Pipeline operators adopt different management procedures and controls based on the characteristics of a particular pipeline system including age. Similar to a home a 50-year-old home can be as safe and livable as a five-year-old home if you adopt proper maintenance procedures” the association stated in a December 2011 press release.

The Alberta government has not issued any calls to overhaul its pipeline regulations. Rood says that knowing older corroded pipes are an issue regardless of CEPA’s assertions warrants extra caution.

“Affiliated with this spill there was a reminder by the provincial agency just reminding the various agencies that operate pipelines this is a good time to take an inventory think about what you’ve got; the condition [of the pipes]” says Rood.