EDMONTON – Three pipeline spills in Alberta this spring have many people wondering whether there are better ways to move the petroleum products that are the lifeblood of Alberta’s economy.
The oil industry’s reliance on pipelines — which organizations such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association say are the safest way to transport products— have companies like TransCanada and Enbridge proposing to expand their lines to carry Alberta bitumen to refineries in Texas and tankers at Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to Asia and its hungry economy.
“The industry really does move all of its oil and natural gas products through pipeline to get to market,” says Greg Stringham, vice-president of markets and oilsands CAPP. “Today in Canada, we are actually producing … almost three million barrels a day, and that’s across the country of course, from the field, to the upgraders, to refineries.”
To put that volume in perspective, CN Rail began in 2010 to test its ability to move heavy crude, light oil, and bitumen to markets in Eastern Canada and the United States.
The company moved three million barrels of oil last year, and expects to move 15 million barrels in 2012. That’s about five days worth of total production.
“Rail does play a part. But (pipelines) are the main transportation grid we use to move oil across the continent. It really has proven to be a very reliable, very safe, and a very efficient way to move this product,” Stringham says. “We are getting fairly constrained on the pipeline capacity given the growth that is happening.”
The use of tanker trucks to move oil is more difficult to measure. Alberta Transportation does not keep track of vehicles carrying petroleum on roads, but can say 430 of 602 “incidents” in 2011 involved petroleum products. The department defines “incidents” as anything that prevents a product from getting to its destination.
Expanding the reach Alberta’s pipelines is key in maintaining the province’s economic stake in the global oil market, provincial Energy Minister Ken Hughes says.
With that need comes a responsibility to maintain the pipeline system.
“The industry as well as the government need to ensure that we have ways to demonstrate the solid aspects of this way of transporting fuels across Canada,” Hughes says. “North America will continue to be heavy users of oil and of natural gas. Those products have to get to market somehow. What we need to do is ensure that they get there with as few incidents as possible.”
The Pembina Institute think-tank, which is among the environmental groups supporting a call for an independent investigation of Alberta’s pipelines, suggests there could be alternatives to building pipelines — particularly the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway line to Kitimat, B.C., which has raised concerns from First Nations communities and municipalities along the proposed northern route to the West Coast.
Nathan Lemphers, a senior policy analyst in the Pembina Institute’s oilsands program, says the capacity of existing pipelines could be increased by increasing the number of pumping stations. Alternatively, companies could transport more product via rail.
“It’s not necessarily a clear-cut solution. There’s benefits and drawbacks to each method of transporting oil,” Lemphers says.
Pipelines leak. Trains derail, tanker trucks crash.
Since trains typically move less product than pipelines, spills are smaller. Derailments can be recognized far faster than pipeline spills.
A natural gas operator in Michigan was the first to notice oil spilling from Enbridge’s pipeline at the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The incident has since netted the company a multimillion-dollar fine in the United States and raised questions about the state of the control room in Edmonton, after testimony given during the investigation shed light on what was happening during the 17 hours it took to shut the line.
“When you have the government coming out and saying, well, simply trust us, we have adequate measures in place without actually coming forward and offering evidence for that position, it puts the government in a fairly precarious situation,” Lemphers says. “Having more information on the table will help ground further discussions” about pipeline expansion.
“Having pipelines in your backyard is nothing new for Albertans, but Albertans also have strong ties to the land and want to see the land conserved,” he says.
Doug Goss still remembers an oil spill that cut summer short at Wabamun Lake in 2005.
“It was a disaster, in every sense of the word,” Goss says. “When you get to the point where the front of the beach is covered in oil and there’s dead animals all over the place, and you’re told you can’t use the lake for the rest of the summer for any reason, it’s pretty devastating.”
But unlike the recent spills, the one at Wabamun Lake was from a 43-car train derailment.
That summer, 1.1 million litres (7,000 barrels) of Bunker C fuel oil spilled into the lake, creating a seven-kilometre slick. The cleanup took nearly a year and cost CN Rail an estimated $28 million.
“We haven’t had any issues since that spill many years ago. We cross our fingers all the time that that won’t happen again,” Goss says. “As a resident, we would be proponents of whatever system is proven to be the safest to transport substances like oil.”
The Wabamun incident sparked a provincial study and recommendations for a faster, more comprehensive response to environmental disasters.
Despite a growing volume of freight being moved along its tracks, CN’s derailments are down. In 2011, the company had 55 main track derailments, compared to 110 in 2005. To date, there have been 27 derailments along main tracks compared to 34 at this time last year.