Trans Mountain pipeline—B.C.’s NDP government should put safety first

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, July 28, 2017
Trans Mountain pipeline—B.C.’s NDP government should put safety first

The last several weeks have seen new, if somewhat contradictory, developments on the Trans Mountain pipeline file. Kinder Morgan received approval last year to twin the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby. The approval was immediately supported by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau.

But attitudes have change in British Columbia. In a July 18 letter to George Heyman, B.C.’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, B.C. Premier John Horgan (pictured above) instructed the Heyman to “employ every tool available to defend B.C.’s interests in the face of the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the threat of a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast.”

Yesterday, B.C.’s attorney general clarified somewhat, pointing out that the province faces lawsuits if it delays the pipeline by stalling on permits though the province can “ensure that permits require that construction be done in a way that minimizes spills, protects the environment, and ensures appropriate cleanup.” B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver also calls upon the NDP government to “use every legally available tool to stop the pipeline from going ahead.”

That makes this a good time to review the question of pipeline and tanker safety, and a new study by the Fraser Institute uses the latest data to provide some context about the safety of transporting oil and gas. The study found that (based on data from 2004 to 2015) when moving a million barrels of oil pipelines were 2.5 times less likely to experience a release of product compared to moving that same amount by rail.

And even then, most spills are small and don’t harm the environment. Seventy per cent of pipeline occurrences (breaks or malfunctions) result in spills of less than one cubic metre of oil. Seventeen per cent of occurrences don’t release any oil at all. And only 17 per cent of occurrences take place in the actual line pipe—the vast majority of occurrences happen in facilities where oil is handled, facilities that often have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures.

Well, but what about that seven-fold increase in tanker traffic off B.C.? Isn’t that risky?

Well, surprisingly enough, despite the fact that oil transported by marine tankers has about doubled from 1975 to 2016, the number of spills declined by 98 per cent.

In fact, when comparing the amount of spills for marine tankers in the decades from 1970s to the 2010s (up to 2016), the number of spills between seven and 700 tonnes has dropped from 543 to 35 while the number of large spills in this period dropped from 245 to 12. Closer to home, where Canadians are most concerned, Canada has not experienced a major spill in Canadian waters since the mid-1990s.

Now, one oil spill is too many, and further work should be done on bringing the number of leaks, spills and accidents down further. But unlike the scary rhetoric of pipeline opponents, real world data shows that oil can be moved safely, and less expensively, by pipeline. Certainly rail will have its place, and rail too is very safe. But by driving more oil to rail than market forces would have slightly increase the risk of moving that oil to people and the environment. It would also lead to more—not fewer—greenhouse gas emissions from the transport process.

Pipeline opponents may have reasons for their opposition, such as trying to prevent oilsands development. But exaggerating risks to Canada’s environment runs afoul of Canada’s own data and experience with moving oil safely.