Interview: Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver talks pipeline safety

Joe Oliver says relax.

Canadians should rest assured the country’s 800,00-kilometre pipeline network is safe, he says, and Ottawa’s making it safer. The Natural Resources Minister announced measures Wednesday to keep energy companies on the hook for their environmental damage.

These measures will address and prevent spills such as those outlined in a Global News investigation of Albertan oil spills, Oliver’s spokesman said.

But the minister sees no need for more transparency from the National Energy Board, and says the regulatory body is already enforcing its rules just fine.

Watch his interview with Global News, or read a partial transcript below:

Why do this now?

I think it’s important for the maritime safety and pipeline safety to continue to move with technological innovation to make sure that everything we proceed with, every project, is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment. So today we are focusing on pipeline safety. And what we did is we inserted a requirement in the rules that companies, operators of pipelines, will have to be able to show $1-billion dollars in financial resources if they propose a major pipeline. And that’s a robust amount. It’s bigger than anywhere else in the world. And it’s considerably bigger than any other pipeline accident that’s happened in Canada or elsewhere in the world.

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Much of this still relies on self-policing from energy companies. Why not beef up enforcement and prevention?

Well actually, the National Energy Board has a very important role to play. It approves projects and it monitors and audits companies to make sure that they comply with the very rigorous rules. We have world-class standards of regulation that the NEB is imposing on companies that operate pipelines in this country. There are more than 800,000 kilometres of pipe moving oil and gas right across the country, and we’re closely integrated with the United States, as well.

So it’s very important that Canadians understand that we have a  world-class system of security and environmental protection in the transport of our oil and gas through pipelines. And the record is very, very strong. I mean, 99.9996 per cent of oil moving through pipelines moves through safely. However we can’t be complacent. We want to make sure we move closer and closer to our objective, which is no serous pipeline accidents, at all. And this will help achieve that. We’re also clarifying the law that the polluter pays. That was an implied rule but now we want to make sure it’s in the law so that in the event of an accident, the operator will be obliged. And that obligation in unlimited.

A 2011 auditor’s report found the National Energy Board isn’t enforcing its own rules. What’s being done to fix that?

Well, the National Energy Board is enforcing its own rules. What we’ve done as well is add administrative monetary penalties, which would permit the Energy Board to fine individuals up to $25,000 a day and corporations up to $100,000 a day for continuing infractions as long as they haven’t corrected them. And that’s in addition to the quasi-criminal proceedings they can take through the provincial courts, where the penalty can be up to $1-million and five years in jail. But we need to provide additional flexibility to the regulator to impose these administrative fines for serious but less important infractions on an ongoing basis.

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These rules call for more transparency from companies. Does the NEB have plans to improve transparency?

Well, yes. What these rules will also require, or permit, the National Energy Board to disclose publicly emergency preparedness plans and [companies’] entire environmental response and safety regime, so that the public will be able to analyze and look at it and hold the companies to account in that regard.

So will it start publishing inspection and investigation reports, then?

Well, I don’t think we’re talking about that beyond those that require action by the National Energy Board and that will be made known to the public. But the system is quite transparent now, and it’ll become even more transparent in the future.

Obama says Keystone shouldn’t go forward if it increases greenhouse gas emissions. How can it not?

Well, on a net basis, in fact, it will not. The State Department, which is the agency that has the primary responsibility, has said that, in a 3,500-page robust, scientific, independent report, that if Keystone doesn’t go ahead, the oil will still be produced. And on a net basis, from a global perspective – which is of course the way to look at it – there will not be an increase in emissions.

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And the other thing to look at is, of the oil that’s being transported, 20 per cent would come from North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan – that’s light oil with considerably lower level of emissions than Venezuela crude. And the heavier portion, the 80 per cent that would come from the oilsands, would also be the same or lower in emission levels than Venezuela. So that, on a net basis, there won”t be an increase. And, in any case, the oilsands represent one-one thousandth of global emissions. … So when he says there can’t be a significant increase in emissions I think that test has been met.

Do you think Canadian pipelines are safe?

Yes, they are safe. And 99.9996 per cent is safe. But we can’t be complacent and we’ve got to make them safer still.

Do you think Canadians, in general, are confident in Canadian pipelines?

Well, I think they have been, and I think they are generally, yes. There’s been a focus now on pipeline spills in a way there hasn’t been historically, so in fact the amount of spills and the size of the spills has actually been decreasing, but there’s a sense that maybe the opposite is the case, simply because there’s more of a focus than there has been historically.

Why do you think BC rejected northern gateway?

Well, BC didn’t reject Northern Gateway. What the government of British Columbia said is that the pipeline as currently planned doesn’t meet their environmental criteria. But that does not preclude the possibility that with changes it might well do so.

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So where do we go from here?

Where we go is, in respect to the Northern Gateway hearing, that has completed its public phase and now the Joint Review Panel has to come up with its final report. In the meantime, it’s up to Enbridge to meet some or all of the conditions which have been imposed on it on a preliminary basis by the Joint Review Panel.

Do you think that the federal government and the provincial government can come to terms with Northern Gateway?

Well I think its encumbent upon all governments to talk together, because natural resources are a shared constitutional responsibility. … So we have to keep talking together – provinces and the federal government, and provinces with each other – in order to advance the responsible resource development in this country.

There’s an enormous opportunity. We’re tremendously blessed with huge resources. They can achieve for Canada prosperity and security for generations to come. But we’ve got to go about this in a responsible way. And our government is determined to do that.

So I guess what you’re saying is, this is a process and we’ve got a long way to go?

It’s a process. We don’t want it to take forever, but we want it to take as much time as it needs in order tomake sure that any project that does go ahead is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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