Don't be afraid of pipelines

The Keystone Oil Pipeline is pictured under construction in North Dakota in this undated photograph...

The Keystone Oil Pipeline is pictured under construction in North Dakota in this undated photograph released on January 18, 2012. (REUTERS)

John Robson, Parliamentary Bureau

, Last Updated: 12:16 PM ET

Are oil pipelines scary? They seem to be. When activists attack proposals for pipelines from Alberta to the United States, or Canada's west coast, the public listens. Too much, perhaps.

Some environmentalists actually oppose fossil fuels altogether because they fear the "greenhouse effect," dislike capitalism or for some other reason. But they know they cannot persuade the public to do without energy because people realize our way of life depends on fossil fuels.

OK, Canadians might get by without annual exports of over $80-billion worth of crude oil and natural gas. But according to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), about 94% of our transportation is powered by petroleum products.

We cannot get to work, go on vacation, grow food or get things from stores without fuel in the tank. And natural gas heats more than half our homes. Without oil and gas we'd be hungry, cold, wet and miserable. And people know it.

So the zealots focus on persuading people pipelines are a bizarre and reckless innovation, suitable for fouling rivers, exterminating migratory birds and spoiling ecosystems but unnecessary for transporting energy. False on all counts.

First, pipelines are familiar technology: CEPA says Canada has enough natural gas and "liquid transmission" pipelines to circle the earth 2.5 times and pipelines transport about three million barrels of crude oil a day in Canada, or 475 million litres. CEPA has a dog in the fight, of course, and if its numbers are factually wrong they should be refuted. But they cannot simply be wished away.

Second, pipelines are quite safe. CEPA says they spilled on average 5.5 litres per million between 2002 and 2011. And you don't have to extol the health benefits for moose of being sprayed with petroleum to recognize that leaking 2,600 litres a day (including major spills) in a country as huge and prosperous as Canada is not a lot. CEPA claims it's the equivalent of three teaspoons of gas over 50 fill-ups of 50 litres each. Do you spill less from the dripping nozzle when you finish gassing up the car?

Ah yes, you cry. But what about major disasters? CEPA classifies a "significant failure" as one involving serious injury or death, a liquid release over eight cubic metres (50 US barrels), a fire or a ruptured pipe and says they happen roughly once a year.

The companies claim they're trying to get better. Which they would, of course. But there are legal, PR and moral consequences to fouling the environment, so modern pipelines are carefully engineered and maintained. Every single weld, says CEPA VP of Safety Ziad Saad, is X-rayed before the pipe is buried. And sophisticated "smart pigs," torpedo-shaped devices that run sonic, magnetic and other scans, routinely travel transmission pipes looking for any worrying signs, such as rust or thinning.

Third, we need pipelines. Obviously they're not perfectly safe. Nothing is. But with the current system close to full capacity, if we're not going to abandon our cities and eat moss, how are we to move fuel around?

As Mr. Spock says, "There are always alternatives." For instance trains. CN only started shipping oil in 2010, moved 5,000 cars last year and aims for more than 60,000 by the end of 2013. But while railways strive for safety for the same noble, and selfish, reasons as pipeline operators, trains still suffer dozens of derailments and fires every year. And according to CEPA, it would take 4,200 rail cars, a line 75 km long, to carry all the oil pipelines do every day.

How safe would that be? Could we load 3 million barrels of oil into 4,200 rail cars every day and spill less than 2,000 litres? And how much more fuel would it take to move them around the country than pipelines use?

Pipeline safety remains a legitimate concern. A project like Northern Gateway, through rugged terrain, poses particular challenges including one the Pembina Institute raises: if slow leaks don't register with pressure sensors they may go unnoticed in remote locations for a long time. But such issues must be discussed rationally in light of available technology, not driven by hysteria into a regulatory maze with no exit.

Our economy, and dignity, depend on it.

 


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