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Senate report on pipelines not as comprehensive as needed, especially on safety

Tracks pass through oil on the banks of the Gleniffer reservoir after a pipeline leak near Sundre, Alta., on Friday, June 8, 2012. Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

The Senate Study on energy transportation is an exercise in energy literacy.  As such the Committee has produced a document that might be on the reference list in a high-school or undergraduate course that introduces hydrocarbon energy in Canada. The Committee’s stated goal was to “make recommendations to improve public safety and the protection of the environment” in regard to the bulk transport of hydrocarbon products in Canada. Recommendations of web portals, expanded databases, national call centres, and even audit programs speak more to improving energy literacy – certainly something that is needed –  but protect public safety and the environment, hardly.

Two examples – first, the report states: “the pipe is then carefully buried and the area is landscaped.” Really? This generalized statement ignores a major issue in pipeline construction and runs in the face of the picture used in the report on page 10 of pipeline installation. The picture is a good example of current issues in burying a pipeline. It is clear that there is standing water in the trench (think pipeline corrosion), excessive trench size (think greater environmental footprint), spanning issues under the pipe (think pipeline stress and breakage), and mixing soil and spoil (think land disturbance and crop loss). Albertans are especially sensitized that energy pictures matter (think ducks on tailings ponds). Further, the report’s picture on the use of a smart pig in the pipeline demonstrated to an engineer from Colombia that they are more environmentally sensitive than we are. In Colombia, there are buildings that enclose where pigs are introduced into a pipe to avoid any contamination to the environment. So again, we have a good picture of what not to do in protection of the environment.

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Related: Crude Awakening – A Global News investigation into Alberta oil spills

Second example, while the report recognize that there is short line and mainline railways in this country, as seen on page 37, a more in-depth analysis would bring out some critical issues that need consideration. Economically, short lines tend to be at the margin. That is why mainlines sold them in the first place. Until the tragedy of Lac-Megantic, Quebec only short lines had exception to run with one-person crews. Where were the additional rules to ensure public safety while an economic need of running with reduced crews was being met? Far better a discussion on what driver metrics really drive the operation of a railway, not always the same for short versus mainline railways.

By “driver metric” I define the term as a metric that really drives performance and what type of performance in any given situation. For example, in a derailment a key metric for railways is how soon can the line be opened again for traffic.  Economically makes sense but what happens when this metric is at odds with a hydrocarbon spill, where limited capacity or resources focus on reopening a line and not on containing the contamination to the environment?

The real danger in the Senate report is if its recommendations are seen as comprehensive or focused on the key issues of our complex energy transport system. Better take it as an energy introduction piece.

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