Robert Lyman

Contributed by Robert Lyman © August 2017

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant with 27 years of experience as a public servant and prior to that, 10 years of experience as a diplomat.

Almost every day, we read about environmentalist activists trying to block the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines and marine ports for oil and natural gas liquids tankers in Canada. When these matters are debated on social media, the activists claim that there are unacceptably high risks associated with every project. Every “worst case” in the past somehow becomes the “most likely case” in the future, according to their claims. With this in mind, it might be useful to recall the most recently available factual information from a number of authoritative sources.

Pipeline Construction

Pipeline and Gas Journal is the main petroleum industry journal in North America. Every year, it publishes the results of its surveys and information received from other countries about the number of pipelines planned or under construction in the world. The Journal’s recently published 2017 survey indicates that 83,802 miles of pipelines are planned or under construction world-wide. Of these, 38,390 miles include projects in the engineering or design phase and 45,412 miles are in various stages of construction.

Within North America (Canada, the United States and Mexico), 15,279 miles of pipeline are under construction and an additional 16,535 miles are in the planning and design stages.

Contrary to environmentalist claims, the North American and global pipeline systems are expanding at a rapid pace, with very few being held up because of alleged environment-related concerns.

Pipeline Safety

The federal governments of Canada and the United States regulate the safety of oil and natural pipelines that cross interstate or inter-provincial borders or international borders. The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in the United States publish regular reports.

The most recent report of the TSB is for 2016. The following are the key statistics from that report, which covers all federally regulated pipelines in Canada.

  • In 2016, the federally regulated pipeline system transported 1.2 billion barrels of oil along about 18,500 km of pipelines. That year, natural gas pipelines transported 6.5 trillion cubic feet along approximately 53,346 km of pipelines.
  • The board maintains statistics on both “accidents” and “incidents.” Accidents are those that result directly from the operation of a pipeline where a person is killed or seriously injured, or the pipeline sustains damage affecting its safe operation. Incidents are all reportable pipeline occurrences other than pipeline accidents.
  • In 2016 there were zero (yes, ZERO) pipeline “accidents” in Canada. That is the same number as occurred in 2015.
  • In 2016 there were 101 pipeline incidents, comparable to 100 reported in 2015. 57 of the 101 incidents involved no release of product. Of the 42 incidents that recorded a release of natural gas:
    • 6 involved a release of less than 1 cubic metre.
    • 19 involved a release of 1-25 cubic metres.
    • 7 involved a release of 26-1000 cubic metres.
    • 4 involved a release of over 1000 cubic metres.
  • In 2016, crude oil releases of 1.5 cubic metres (9.44 barrels) or more decreased to 1 (yes, ONE) from 3 in 2015.

Amid constant warnings about the risk of spills or releases from oil & gas pipelines in Canada, the fact remains that 99.9999% of the oil and natural gas transported to market arrives safely.

In the United States, oil, natural gas and other types of pipelines are regulated by the PHMSA. According to PHMSA statistics, there were 66,943 miles of crude oil pipelines in 2014 and 74,796 miles of crude oil pipelines in 2016. Statistics on the volume of crude oil transported are published by the Association of Oil Pipelines and the American Petroleum Institute. The most recent year for which data is available in 2014, when 9.3 billion barrels of crude oil were transported.

The U.S. record for pipeline safety is not as good as that in Canada and the published data is also not as detailed. PHMSA reports pipeline incidents for all pipelines. It publishes the number of “serious” incidents, where fatalities or injuries occurred. The average number of fatalities over the past 10 years is 13 per year; the average number of injuries over the past 10 years is 64 per year. This equates to an average of 77 serious incidents per year over the past 10 years. Compare that to zero accidents per year in Canada for 2015 and 2016.

Unfortunately, PHMSA reports do not provide the same level of detail concerning the number and volume of oil spills as do those of the TSB in Canada. The information is available as a result of the joint American Petroleum Institute (API)-Association of Oil Pipelines Annual Pipeline (AOPL) Safety Performance Report and Strategic Plan. Based on the reports from pipeline operators, in 2013 there were 134 releases from onshore liquids pipelines along pipeline rights of way. The number of barrels released declined from about 90,000 in 2000 to about 30,000 in 2012, before increasing to 110,000 barrels due to one large spill in 2013. Over half (55%) of the barrels released in 2013 were caused by third parties or outside forces, not the operation of the pipeline companies themselves. Of the 397 pipeline incidents reported to PHMSA in 2013, nearly 140, or 35%, were smaller than one barrel, over 260 (two-thirds) were 5 barrels or smaller, and nearly 350 (88%) were 100 barrels or smaller. Only 20 releases were larger than 500 barrels.

The U.S. State Department, in its assessment of the risks of oil spills as part of its review of the Keystone XL Pipeline, calculated that between 2002 and 2009, the number of releases per ton-miles of petroleum pipeline transport was 0.0006.

Even that extremely low figure hides an important fact. Most of the spills occur on older pipelines, many of which have been in operation for over seventy years. The technology of pipeline construction and operation today is vastly better than that used on the older portions of the pipeline system, and the risks of a spill are much lower with new pipelines.

When 9.3 billion barrels of oil are transported, and only 100,000 barrels are released (and subsequently recovered), the risk of an oil spill is extremely low. The risk is not zero, but there is no other modern industrial activity where the risks of serving the public’s needs for energy or any other product are zero.

Tanker Traffic in Canada

Most oil tanker traffic in Canada takes place on the East Coast. Transport Canada maintains statistics on the movement of tankers and on oil spills.

There are about 4,000 inbound trips by tankers each year on the East Coast, so tankers account for about one fifth of the 20,000 inbound vessel trips each year there. Over 82 million tonnes of various petroleum and fuel products are moved in and out of 39 East Coast ports.

In Quebec, 25 million tonnes of crude oil and various petroleum products are moved in and out of 39 ports.

On the West Coast, where oil tankers have been moving in and out since the 1930’s, in 2015 there were about 197,500 departures and arrivals of vessels. Tankers accounted for 1,487 of them, or 0.75%.

Why, one wonders, if almost all the tanker movement is on the East Coast, is so much controversy focused on the West Coast? Does this really have anything to do with the safety of oil tanker movement?

West Coast Oil Spills

The largest oil spill in Canada occurred off the East Coast in 1970, forty-seven years ago. The tanker Arrow spilled over 10,000 tonnes of oil far off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The Canadian West Coast’s largest spill was 240 tonnes, caused by the sinking of the ferry M/V The Queen of the North in 2006. In 1988, the Nestucca oil barge spilled 87 tonnes of oil off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

In 2015, the M/V Marathassa was reported to have spilled fuel oil in Vancouver’s English Bay. This caused a major controversy about the alleged delay in responding by the Western Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC). In response to the uproar, the Minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) launched an independent investigation. According to the report of the independent review, there were a number of examples of miscommunication between federal and provincial officials immediately after the spill was reported. According to Transport Canada’s Response Organization Standards, Response Organizations must mobilize resources within six hours after notification of the spill in a designated port. In addition, CCG has Environmental Response Levels of Service, requiring resources to be mobilized within six hours of the assessment. In fact, WCMRC responded and had crew on scene one hour twenty minutes after the incident was reported and immediately began skimming the oil off the water. WCMRC’s response thus was well within the established standards. Nonetheless, the controversy was in the Vancouver press for several weeks. There was minimal impact on the public from a health and safety perspective. Approximately 20 birds were affected; one duck died. This “crisis” is held up as an example of the failure of the Canadian marine safety system.

In spite of the fact that oil tankers and much other shipping has been operating off the West Coast for well over a century, there has never been a spill from a tanker, and the spills from other vessels have all been small and quickly cleaned up. Canada’s system for responding to and cleaning up any marine spills works very well.