by Theresa Peluso
Part II: Three Pipeline Proposals: Are they as safe as advertised?
This is the second part of a two-part column on the Energy East pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corporation to transport between 500,000 and 850,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada in an effort to provide markets for oil from the Alberta tarsands. In Part I, I explained the concerns many people have about the provenance of this oil. In this piece, I will explain the concerns expressed about the oil pipeline proposals by three different companies to convey this oil to end markets, and then try to determine whether the safety and environmental issues raised would apply to the Energy East proposal.
Here is a short description of the three above-mentioned proposals, and related concerns.
a) Enbridge Inc. and the Northern Gateway Project
Enbridge Inc., a Canadian crude oil and liquids pipeline company, has proposed the Northern Gateway Project, which would consist of a twin pipeline 1,170 km in length starting in Bruderheim, Alberta and ending in Kitimat, B.C., where the oil would then be shipped by oil tankers to Asian markets. The project also includes terminal facilities to accommodate loading the oil onto the tankers and unloading condensate.
After thoroughly analysing the evidence, the B.C. government has rejected this pipeline, due to a failure to meet five key conditions set out by the Premier. A key issue was the question of how the company would handle a major spill. Another concern was taxpayer liability for major oil spills.
An article in the Digital Journal titled “B.C. rejects the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project” by Grace C. Visconti mentions yet another concern:
Additionally…Tory backbenchers are troubled and divided by the current Canada-China agreement. (Note: FIPA stands for Canada-China Foreign Protection Investment Agreement. This agreement is of special concern because China owns a significant percentage of the Alberta tarsands.)
In October 2012, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, strongly urged that Canadians demand parliamentary hearings regarding the Canada-China treaty between the Government of Canada and the Government of the People’s Republic of China. If passed, it means that corporate rights will allow companies to sue governments in favor of corporate profits regardless of dire consequences to the environment of Canada and its people.(June 1, 2013)
.According to Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org), over 100 First Nations don’t want the tarsands pipelines to cross their lands, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon for a number of reasons. The inevitable oil spills will pollute the clean environment necessary for the 40,000 people working in B.C.’s fisheries and tourism industries to make a living. Tankers carrying the oil would pass through critical whale habitat, increasing the chance of collisions, contamination from oil spills and underwater noise impacts. Furthermore, proceeding with the pipeline would spur an increase in tarsands development, reduce the incentive to find greener energy solutions, and add to the extensive damage to the water, soil, forests, air, as well as to the animals and people living in northern Alberta.
b) Kinder Morgan – Canada and the Trans Mountain pipeline
Kinder Morgan, an American energy company, has a number of subsidiaries, including Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a leading pipeline transportation and energy storage company in North America that owns or operates nearly 42,000 km of oil and gas pipelines and about 170 gasoline, coal and petroleum coke terminals. Several of these facilities are located in Western Canada, including the Trans Mountain Pipeline system, which was completed 60 years ago and was extended in 2008, for a total of 1,150 km of pipeline and 24 pump stations. Kinder Morgan – Canada’s latest proposal is to expand their current pipeline between Strathcona County, Alberta and Burnaby, B.C.
Conversations for Responsible Economic Development (CRED) is a collaboration of business owners, academics, landowners and everyday residents of British Columbia who support responsible economic development. Their February 2013 report titled “Assessing the risks of Kinder Morgan’s proposed new Trans Mountain pipeline” states that “the National Response Center, the sole federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills in the U.S. and its territorial waters, has found Kinder Morgan responsible for more than 1,800 violations since it was incorporated in 1997, nearly 500 of which are pipeline incidents.” (page 6)
This report also explains that, according to industry figures, more than 3.4 million litres of fossil fuels have been accidentally released from pipelines every year in Alberta since 2006. With respect to the Trans Mountain line, since reporting began in 1961, operators of this pipeline have been responsible for 78 spills along the pipeline route. Furthermore, there are specific risks in connection with piping diluted bitumen. Because it typically must be piped under higher temperatures and pressures, this raises the risk of pipeline failures. These leaks can have serious impacts, including toxic substances leaching into the ground. One litre of spilled oil can contaminate a million litres of groundwater.
This report goes on to mention that transporting oil or diluted bitumen by ocean tankers, despite improvements in oil-spill incidents, still results in an average of four major oil tanker spills per year globally.
c) TransCanada and the Keystone XL pipeline proposal
Although most of TransCanada’s pipelines transport natural gas (TransCanada wholly owns a total of 57,000 km of natural gas pipelines), the company also has constructed a smaller quantity of oil pipelines. TransCanada owns the Keystone Pipeline, which consists of three phases; from Alberta to Illinois; from Illinois to Oklahoma; and from Oklahoma to Texas (currently under construction)., This adds up to 3,462 km of completed pipeline, plus 2,673 km that is part of the third phase in progress.
The huge debate that is happening right now has to do with the fourth phase, Keystone XL, which would originate in Hardisty, Alberta and extend 1,897 km to Steele City, Nebraska.
In a CNN article titled “Oil, money and politics; EPA snags Keystone XL pipeline” by Ben Brumfield, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPN) is reported as having several objections:
It (the Keystone XL pipeline) will produce too many greenhouse gases, the EPA said in its letter, and this needs to be amended, before the project goes forward….The agency is also concerned about oil spills, particularly since sands crude is different from conventional crude. It cites a 2010 pipe break in Michigan, which spurted out 20,000 barrels of sands crude. Some of it sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River and could not be completely cleaned up in three years’ time, the EPA said. “Spills of diluted bitumen may require different response actions or equipment,” the letter stated. “These spills can also have different impacts than spills of conventional oil.” (April 23, 2013)
Those people living near an oil pipeline may be interested in this article in the
We could also consider any adverse impacts on property values that might result from a pipeline leak. One study, by Robert Simons, suggests that homes affected by a pipeline leak will experience real losses in property value of approximately 25% following a rupture if the situation is remediable and while remediation is in progress. It is important to note that market implications may vary. This diminution, of course, may increase in the case of pipelines carrying particularly dangerous or noxious materials. (Jan. 3, 2013)
And now of course, we need to consider TransCanada’s Energy East proposal. The Ottawa Citizen recently published an article titled “Proposal to convert TransCanada gas pipeline for crude gets chilly reception in Ottawa” by Drake Fenton, in which the following concerns were noted:
“It’s not a question of will this pipeline spill, but instead it’s a question of when and where,” said Ben Powless, who organized the event for Ecology Ottawa at the Ottawa Public Library. More than 100 people filled the library’s auditorium to seek information. The company could send as many as 850,000 barrels a day of Albertan crude oil through the south end of Ottawa and across the Rideau River….During a presentation, Powless joked with the audience about how the project is all risk and no reward. “The pipeline is older than most of us here today,” he said about retrofitting the 55-year-old pipeline. “And it’s probably in a lot worse shape than most of us here today. This represents a significant risk to the future of Ottawa, our health, our safety and our waterways.” (July 16, 2013)
At this meeting Powless cited a variety of other oil spills that have occurred in Canada, and said there is no safe way to transport oil. The meeting’s organizers, Ecology Ottawa, have 1,600 signatures on a petition against the pipeline, and plan to use the petition to convince government representatives to speak out against the pipeline.
To summarize, here are the concerns raised about oil pipelines elsewhere, which are relevant to TransCanada’s Energy East proposal:
a) Oil spills from pipelines are inevitable. In a 2011 report titled “Analysis of Frequency, Magnitude and Consequence of Worst-Case spills from the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline”, John Stansbury, Ph.D., P.E., University of Nebraska, explains that “a more realistic assessment of expected frequency of significant spills is 0.00109 spills per year per mile (1.61 km) (from the historical data (PHMSA, 2009)) resulting in 91 major spills over a 50-year design life of the pipeline….TransCanada assumed that its pipeline would be constructed so well that it would have only half as many spills as the other pipelines in service (on top of the 23 percent missing data), even though they will operate the pipeline at higher temperatures and pressures and the crude oil that will be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline will be more corrosive than the conventional crude oil transported in existing pipelines.” (page 1)
b) Because oil spills from pipelines happen underground, they may continue indefinitely before being detected, polluting our soil and groundwater, and harming habitat, wildlife, and people.
c) Proceeding with building and retrofitting the Energy East pipeline will spur an increase in tarsands development, reducing the incentive to use greener alternatives.
d) We taxpayers may end up footing the bill for major oil spills if the Canada-China treaty is signed. (Chinese national oil companies now own about 10 percent of Canadian oil sands operations, according to news.sanford.duke.edu/news-type/commentary/2013/china-k china-keystone-showdown-over-pipeline.)
e) Underground oil pipelines may result in a decrease in property values for people living nearby.
Some people consider oil pipelines to be a lesser evil compared with transporting oil by train, especially after the shocking news of the July 6 explosion in Lac-Mégantic of 72 train cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota. According to an article by Steven Mufson titled “Pipeline or railroad: which is safer?” in the Guardian Weekly:
The Canadian Railway Association estimates that companies will ship up to 140,000 tanker cars of crude oil on Canada’s tracks this year – up from 500 loads in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada this year involving crude oil shipments, the Associated Press reported.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) pointed to statistics that it said showed that pipelines have an average spill size more than four times that of railroads ….The group said that from 1990 to 2009, the pipeline spill ratio was about 5.7 litres spilled per billion barrel kilometres and the railroad spill ratio was about 5.1 litres, 9% lower.
The Lac-Mégantic disaster will tilt those figures, though the size of the spill is still unclear. From 2002 to 2012 US railroads spilled 2,268 barrels of crude oil, according to data cited by the AAR. (July 18, 2013)
Based on this information, it seems that transporting oil by train is somewhat safer, but not much. Essentially, an oil spill is always a disaster, and the bigger the spill, the worse the disaster. It would seem that a spill resulting from a train incident is always detectable and more easily assessed and remediated, compared with a pipeline spill.
So there you have it – an outline of the concerns expressed by scientists, government agencies, environmentalists, politicians, and concerned citizens, about the negative impacts of oil pipelines. Yes, oil produces short-term gains for the economy, but what about the longer term? Is TransCanada’s Energy East proposal really in our best interests?