Alberta pipeline safety review does not examine pipeline incidents or enforcement record

A long-delayed review into pipeline safety in Alberta made some recommendations into improving pipeline regulations in the province, but failed to examine a single pipeline incident.

The report, written by Group 10 Engineering, was originally announced by Energy Minister Ken Hughes in July 2012, after a number of major spills in the province, including a leak of over 3,000 barrels of crude oil into the Red Deer River.

However, the final report, begun in September 2012 and made public nearly a year later in August 2013, did not examine any pipeline incidents or their management, focusing instead on comparing
Alberta’s regulations to those in other jurisdictions, and interviewing regulatory bodies and industry representatives about areas they think need improvement.

“Enforcement of regulations was not part of the scope of this project,” said Theo Abels from Group 10, one of the report’s authors. “It was an assessment of the regulations themselves.”
Abels said that after his assessment, he has confidence in Alberta’s pipeline system.

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“You can’t really determine whether something is safe without assessing enforcement and compliance with regulations,” said Jennifer Grant, the oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental advocacy group which focuses on energy policy.

When asked why the report did not include a discussion of enforcement, Energy Minister Ken Hughes said, “That’s the role on a day to day basis of the regulator.”

“I’m very proud of the work that the Alberta Energy Regulator is doing,” he said.

Watch: Alberta energy minister Ken Hughes addresses the pipeline safety review

According to a Global News investigation, there have been on average two crude oil spills every day in Alberta since 1975. Pipelines are the largest source of all spills, accounting for 47 per cent of spills over that time period. Canadian energy regulators, including Alberta’s, rely on industry reporting of oil spills, and investigations into several incidents over the past few years have indicated that reporting is not always timely.

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For example, a 2011 break on a Plains Midstream pipeline leaked more than 28,000 barrels of crude oil into muskeg in Northern Alberta before the pipeline was shut down. It took nearly 14 hours for the company to report to the energy regulator.

In December 2011, a report from the federal environment commissioner slammed the National Energy Board for not adequately enforcing its rules. When inspectors found deficiencies, 93 per cent of the time they never followed up to see whether they were corrected.

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

Overall, the report found that Alberta “provides the most thorough overall regulatory regime of all the assessed Canadian jurisdictions.” However, it found that regulations were not consistent across jurisdictions and made some recommendations to address this issue.

“The recommendations appear to be important next steps in improving an aging and growing pipeline system,” said Grant. “They also highlight a number of key gaps.”

In particular, she says that recommendations on ensuring proper staffing at the regulator and managing pipelines around water bodies are very important.

The report devoted significant attention to pipelines which cross water bodies. It recommends that depth of cover determinations be completed on a regular basis for high-risk water crossings, to make sure that pipelines that cross water bodies remain adequately buried. It also recommends that companies be required to have processes for identifying and mitigating the risk of pipelines near water bodies and other high-risk areas.

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Abels was not able to say how many water body crossings there were in Alberta. “It would take a long time to count,” he said.

The report also mentions that, “production pipelines are unique in that they are the only component of oil and gas production systems, from formation to sales valve, where there are no specified minimum frequencies and requirements for inspection, or testing to confirm their integrity.”

The AER stated in a press briefing that it is not possible to prescribe requirements for production pipelines due to the variety of materials they carry, different sizes and the different environments they cross. AER estimates that there are about 350,000 km of production pipelines in the province, or about 87.5 per cent of the total pipelines under its jurisdiction.

The ERCB (now the Alberta Energy Regulator), in its official response, stated that it accepts the report’s 17 recommendations.

One of the organizations originally calling for the pipeline review, environmental group Greenpeace, is not happy that it was not consulted in this report, for which researchers spoke only to industry representatives and regulatory bodies.

“How many of the 54 groups that pushed for Alberta pipeline report were consulted before its release? Zero,” tweeted Greenpeace Canada Climate and Energy Campaigner Mike Hudema on Friday before the report’s release.

Alberta NDP Environment Critic Rachel Notley says the report was supposed to reassure Albertans that the province’s pipeline system is safe.

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“The report doesn’t do that. It doesn’t ask the right questions.”

“The fact of the matter is is that we cannot comment on the safety of our pipeline integrity if the report doesn’t comment on how well we monitor and how well we enforce our regulations.”

University of Alberta energy expert Richard Dixon says that fact will do little to inspire confidence for those deciding on pipelines like Keystone.

“It’s not just a question of being trustworthy. It’s a question and a perception of ‘are we doing what we say we will do?'” Dixon explained.

“The purpose of the report was to understand the present status of pipeline safety and how to improve it,” said Abels. “I did not believe that approaching public organizations would contribute to the technical improvement of pipeline safety.”

Alberta Energy has posted the pipeline review on its website, and is inviting the public to comment on the report’s findings for a 45-day period.

“Providing 45 days for Albertans to comment when the Minister had roughly eight months to read the same report is definitely too narrow a time frame,” said Grant.

“If people think that there are weaknesses in what has been put forward, if people think that more should be done in specific areas, I’m all ears,” said Hughes.

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Updated at 5:57 pm Eastern time on Aug. 23, 2013 to include comment from NDP and University of Alberta energy expert.

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