Ecojustice Blog – Climate change Posted on August 27, 2013 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Alberta’s Pipeline Safety Review gives a false sense of security

Barry RobinsonLawyer

On Friday, August 23, 2013, the Government of Alberta released its long-awaited Alberta Pipeline Safety Review. Energy Minister Ken Hughes ordered the review in July 2012 following several high profile pipeline leaks in the province. In announcing the review, the Government said it was retaining an independent third party to examine the safety and integrity of the province’s pipeline system.

Unfortunately, those who expected that the review would answer such questions as “What is the root cause of the significant pipeline leaks in Alberta?” or “What is the condition of Alberta’s aging pipeline system?” will be disappointed.

Instead of addressing these important questions, the review, completed by Group 10 Engineering in December 2012, was limited to a comparison of the pipeline regulations in various Canadian, American and international jurisdictions and to interviews with a number of pipeline operators and industry associations. The results are somewhat predictable and not necessarily representative of the actual state of affairs on the ground.

For example, the review looked at the regulatory requirements in three areas: pipeline integrity management; public safety and response to pipeline incidents; and the safety of pipelines near water bodies. The review compared Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan regulations as well as the federal National Energy Board regulations, the U.S. federal regulations and regulations in Australia. The review concluded that Alberta has the most thorough regulatory regime of all the jurisdictions.

What is missing, of course, is any comparison of the degree to which the regulations are being monitored and enforced.

Having strict regulations is one thing. Meeting those regulations is another.

For example, we recently learned that, while Alberta has regulations requiring the reduction of oilsands tailings, not a single company is meeting those standards and the Alberta Energy Regulator has not taken any enforcement action. Having strict regulations is one thing. Meeting those regulations is another. The review failed to do any on-the-ground assessment of the degree of compliance with Alberta’s pipeline regulations.

Unless of course, we take the word of the pipeline operators themselves.

In conducting the review, Group 10 Engineering asked 16 pipeline operators questions such as: “With reference to leak detection, do you have a formal approach to leak detection, and do you consider it to exceed the requirements of the Alberta regulation?” Not surprisingly, 100 per cent of operators reported that they are meeting and exceeding the regulatory requirements in Alberta. Group 10 Engineering took these responses at face value. There was no independent verification of these responses.

Prior to my legal career, I conducted environmental audits of industrial operations, primarily in the forestry industry. Environmental audits involved both interviews with operators and field verification of the responses. In numerous audits, I would be told in interviews that there were no hazardous wastes on site, only to find during the field inspection a long forgotten tank or barrel of hazardous waste tucked away in a corner. Responses to interview questions seldom matched the reality on the ground. I expect that the same is true in the pipeline industry.

Similarly, in interviews conducted during the review, 100 per cent of pipeline operators reported that they had a corporate pipeline Integrity Management Program that complies with relevant codes and regulatory requirements. Not only was there no independent verification of whether the corporate Integrity Management Programs actually met regulatory requirements, there was also no assessment of the follow up that resulted when pipeline integrity issues were identified.

For example, the pipeline defects that ultimately lead to Enbridge’s 2010 Kalamazoo River spill — the biggest inland oil spill on record in the U.S. — had been identified during an inspection in 2005 but had yet to be excavated and repaired five years later. Having a pipeline integrity management program that meets regulations is meaningless if there is no follow up when problems are identified.

Albertans should not be reassured by the Alberta Pipeline Safety Review. While the Review tells us that Alberta has significant pipeline regulations and that the pipeline operators believe that they are meeting those regulations, it really tells us nothing about the safety and integrity of pipelines in the ground in Alberta.

What is required, but has not been provided, is an independent assessment of pipeline operators’ compliance with Alberta’s regulations and an independent assessment of the condition of and risk associated with Alberta’s pipelines.

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