Pipelines hold both promise and peril

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Canada is one of the world’s great energy behemoths; a constipated behemoth, yes, but a behemoth, nonetheless. All it needs is a fact-acting laxative or, as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall advises, a few more oil pipelines to. . .well, stay regular.

Here endeth the metaphor (you are welcome), but not the over-arching point, which is accumulating currency in political circles across the country these days: Canada’s natural resources, particularly oil, promise untold prosperity from coast to coast to coast, if we could only get them to markets.

At a Canadian Chamber of Commerce event last week week, Mr. Wall sounded downright dejected. Another “country with all this (oil) would find ways to move energy to tidewater, to improve the return to Canadians for the resource, to ensure there are jobs for the future for all of us – including First Nations – for the entire country,” The Canadian Press quoted him.

“We would do everything we could to ensure we had this great resource working not just for today’s economy  but helping for the economy of tomorrow. We have to get our head around moving that energy.”

In fact, it would seem, most Canadians agree with him. Research company CROP Inc. has released a survey that indicates that people in this country are generally keen on at least the idea of pipelines. According to the Telegraph-Journal’s Chris Morris,  “The survey suggests that more Canadians agree with the major pipeline projects, including the Energy East proposal to bring oil to New Brunswick. The results found that 57 per cent of respondents endorsed the project compared to 25 per cent against.”

Meanwhile, “83 per cent of respondents said they are favourable to to the development of the oilsands,” though “41 per cent believe development should be slowed down, while 42 per cent are happy with the current pace.”

So, the solution to Canada’s energy stultification seems obvious. Or does it?

A recent CBC News investigation suggests the issue is a tad more complicated than the pro-pipeline lobbyists would have us believe. The public broadcaster reports that “pipelines regulated by the federal government – which include some of the longest lines in the country – have experienced a swell in the number of safety-related incidents over the past decade.”

Specifically, documents the CBC obtained under access-to-information from the National Energy Board (NEB) show that the number of “overall pipeline incidents”, which include leaks, spills and fires, has jumped by a factor of two since the turn of the century. The number of spills, alone, have tripled.

“More than four reportable releases happened for every 10,000 kilometres in 2000, or 18 incidents in total, according to NEB data,” the CBC reports. “By 2011, that rate had risen to 13 per 10,000 kilometres, or 94 incidents.”

In fact, that may not sound like much, given that 90-odd companies operate roughly 71,000 kilometers of pipe in Canada. And, in the context of this summer’s  devastating events at Lac-Megantic – at which a derailment of train cars carrying heavy oil exploded, killing dozens of people – pipeline leaks seem the far lesser of two evils.

Certainly, the NEB doesn’t appear overwrought about the numbers, attributing their rise to better reporting standards. “We’ve been out there talking with industry associations and the companies themselves to ensure that they are fully aware of what the reporting requirements are and I think that’s why we’re seeing an increase right now,” the NEB’s business leader for operations, Patrick Smythe, told the CBC.

It’s entirely possible he’s correct. But even if he is, that doesn’t change the fact that pipelines are, like any other piece of transportation infrastructure, vulnerable to the inexorable onslaught of time and weather. They must be maintained. And, just as importantly, they must be seen to be maintained.

In the end, nothing halts energy development in Canada with greater force than a distrustful, angry, agitated public.

The current shale gas debate in the pristine countryside of fair New Brunswick – where a pipeline might well wend  – proves definitively that industrial-strength spin has its limits.

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