NEB monitoring of pipeline safety still ‘inadequate’: audit

Click to play video: 'New study fuels divisions over pipelines in Canada' New study fuels divisions over pipelines in Canada
WATCH: Navigating the complicated politics of pipelines has gotten trickier. The proposed Energy East pipeline project is far from a done deal, but a damning audit of pipeline safety has raised more questions. Vassy Kapelos reports – Jan 26, 2016

A new federal audit shows that the National Energy Board is doing a better job overseeing federally regulated pipelines than before, but it must still improve transparency, beef up its workforce and increase its monitoring of companies that have already had their pipelines approved.

In a carefully worded report tabled Tuesday in the House of Commons, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand, seemed to balance bad news with good when it came to the energy regulator.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Gelfand’s team – which operates within the Office of the Auditor General – concluded that the NEB is still failing to “adequately track companies’ implementation of pipeline approval conditions,” and “not consistently following up on company deficiencies.”

These issues seem to be rooted in the NEB’s information-tracking systems, which the auditor deemed “outdated and inefficient.” The various systems used to track whether companies are complying with approval conditions on pipelines across the country were not well integrated with each other, making it difficult to conduct quick checks to see if things are proceeding as planned.

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Approval conditions for federally regulated oil and gas pipelines can cover a wide range of topics. Companies often agree to protect critical animal and plant habitats, provide economic opportunities for Aboriginal groups, and maintain safety and engineering standards for the pipeline itself before they get the go-ahead from the NEB.

It is the NEB’s job to ensure that companies are sticking to these conditions as they build and operate a pipeline. In about half of the cases the audit examined, that wasn’t happening.

“In 50 per cent of the cases they were not adequately tracking,” said Gelfand at a news conference held after the audit’s release. “This not-tracking has a range of examples of issues. It could be as simple as they didn’t tick a box in a spreadsheet, all the way to: it’s been 10 years and they still don’t have a study on a pipeline rupture.”

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This is especially concerning at a time when pipeline proposals are multiplying, the audit notes, and new NEB responsibilities are set to kick in under the Pipeline Safety Act.

The audit also found that while the NEB has improved its review of company emergency procedures manuals, a third of those manuals still need to be updated to ensure that the right steps are taken in the event of a major spill or disaster.

It wasn’t all bad news for the federal energy regulator, however. The NEB did, according to the report, show progress in areas like public access to information on pipeline incidents (although the information could be presented in a more user-friendly way).

The NEB has also taken steps to increase the number of engineers it hires to monitor key areas such as pipeline integrity, but the audit notes that “it is still facing ongoing challenges” when it comes to staffing.

“They are working hard on that question … and they are continuing to recruit and to retain,” Gelfand said.

Asked if the identified gaps are compromising safety, Gelfand noted that there are still just “three to 10” serious incidents a year across 73,000 kilometres of pipelines.

Pipelines have been top-of-mind in Ottawa in recent days as local politicians in Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta have weighed in on the potential merits and drawbacks of the Energy East pipeline project.

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On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Montreal to meet with the city’s mayor, Denis Coderre, who igniting a firestorm of controversy by publicly opposing the project, saying it would have no economic benefit for Montreal or Quebec as a whole. Politicians in Saskatchewan and Alberta fired back, arguing that the pipeline could help reverse the ongoing economic downtown in the West.

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