By Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, June 14, 2012
Since 2006, province's pipelines have spilled the equivalent of almost 28 million litres of oil
When a smiling Alberta Premier Alison Redford describes last week's pipeline spill of 475,000 litres of oil into a pristine river as an "exception," she is serving up unadulterated spin.
Something is exceptional when it happens so infrequently that when it does occur, it's a surprise.
But I know from my reporting career, which was ushered in by a series of massive pipeline spills in Alberta more than 40 years ago, that these events occur with depressing regularity.
The pipeline industry has had almost half a century to work on the problem, yet oil spills, explosions, fires and toxic pollution as a consequence of ruptures are anything but exceptional. They still happen on an almost daily basis.
So when enthusiasts for the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project rush to hype the safety of pipeline technology and denounce doubters as part of some sinister conspiracy while scoffing at questions about risk as public hysteria, take it all with several pounds of salt.
Sean Kheraj, a York University history professor, has been crunching the official numbers and posting his startling findings about the grimy past of the pipeline industry.
He has pored over the dryasdust jargon, arcane acronyms and metrics sufficiently complicated that one must assume the unspoken intent of regulatory bodies is to discourage ordinary folk from finding out what's really going on.
For example, Kheraj notes that Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board calculates the frequency of pipeline accidents by comparing the number of failures to the total length of the pipeline system. This is both weird and confusing.
Why use distance to measure intervals of time? Would we accept fire statistics calculated relative to the length of the city's road system? Or the frequency of airline accidents as a function of the total length of landing strips?
And why must a lay citizen develop the skills of a forensic auditor or a cryptographer just to find how many pipeline accidents occur over what duration of time and what the cumulative releases of oil or gas are to the environment?
However, back to Prof. Kheraj and his examination of the record.
He's looked at oil pipeline spills in Alberta over the last 35 years. His conclusion is that these spills are "endemic" rather than exceptional.
It's hard to disagree. Between 1990 and 2005, the Alberta Energy Utilities Board recorded more than 16,000 "releases" by pipelines, of which more than half involved hydrocarbons and roughly 30 per cent were "hydrocarbon liquid," which would mean oil or distillates.
Since 2006, Kheraj notes, pipeline ruptures number in the thousands and have spilled the equivalent of at least almost 28 million litres of oil.
In 2010 alone, he observes, pipelines in Alberta carrying either oil or some combination of oil, gas or distillates failed on average every 1.4 days and they spilled roughly 3.4 million litres of oil.
Now, consider the campaign by the B.C. Used Oil Management Association to educate citizens here regarding the environmental threat posed by small quantities of oil.
A single litre of spilled oil, the campaign points out, can contaminate a million litres of groundwater.
So, consider the impact of 28 million litres of spilled oil on water resources - at a time when your Vancouver Sun's front page headline reports that conservation of water is becoming crucial. Multiply 28 million litres of oil by a million. I get 28 trillion litres of contaminated water.
The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would cross a thousand fishsustaining streams and rivers in rugged terrain that's known for massive earthquakes and land movements.
Demanding a full, transparent and rigorous evaluation of risk and challenging the objectivity of the process is neither hysterical nor foolish.
It's what the circumstances and potential consequences demand.
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