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Study shows a higher risk of Northern Gateway pipeline spills than Enbridge estimated

Douglas Channel, the proposed termination point for an oil pipeline in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, is pictured in an aerial view in Kitimat, B.C., on January 10, 2012.


British Columbia will be hit by more oil spills than Enbridge has predicted if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, says a new risk assessment by Simon Fraser University.

"The overall conclusion of this report is that [the project] has a very high likelihood of a spill … and that the risk of spills has been understated by Enbridge," says the study, which is to be released Thursday.

Tom Gunton, director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU, said the study looked at all three components of the project: the pipeline, the marine terminal and tankers. "We found there will be significantly more spills [in all categories]," he said.

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He said the study, which used an internationally accepted model known as the United States Oil Spill Risk Analysis (OSRA), predicts tanker spills on the B.C. coast every 10 years – as opposed to Enbridge's estimate of 250 years.

Terminal spills are predicted to occur within 15 to 41 years, not 62 years as Enbridge projects, and there would be multiple pipeline spills – up to 15 per year – not one spill every two years, the study maintains.

The study predicts 776 oil and condensate pipeline spills over 50 years, which is 31 times more frequent than Enbridge's estimate of 25 spills.

"So that's a huge difference," said Dr. Gunton, who did the study with PhD candidate Sean Broadbent.

He said there is always a high degree of uncertainty in forecasting future events, but he argued the dramatically different results found in his study bring Enbridge's projections into doubt.

"Their forecast has been done in a very deficient way," he said. "It's certain the risks will be significantly higher than what they stated."

Enbridge did not have the study Wednesday, and a spokesman said officials did not want to respond before having a chance to read it.

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The company has long maintained that all aspects of the project will be done to the highest safety standards in the world. Last year Enbridge promised to spend an additional $500-million on extra measures to increase the wall thickness of the pipeline, to install dual leak detection systems and to increase the number of remotely operated isolation valves.

"Safety is our highest priority," the company says on its website. "Our goal is always to have zero spills."

But Dr. Gunton said the spill risk assessments provided by Enbridge are so far off the mark that the federal joint review panel (JRP) now reviewing the project can't accurately assess the risk.

"The problem is the panel does not have [complete] evidence before them on the likelihood of an oil spill. And the evidence they do have from Enbridge has serious deficiencies in methodology. So it's impossible for the JRP to make an informed, evidence-based assessment," Dr. Gunton said.

His study comes too late to be entered as evidence before the JRP, which is gearing up to hear final written arguments.

Dr. Gunton said part of the reason he got such different results is that the SFU study used the OSRA model to assess the risk of tanker spills, while Enbridge did not. "Surprisingly Enbridge experts did not make any reference to the U.S. oil spill risk model [in submissions to the JRP] … I find that distressing," he said.

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Dr. Gunton said Enbridge's own data was used to estimate terminal and pipeline spills.

The proposed 1,172-kilometre pipeline would ship oil from Alberta to a marine terminal in Kitimat, on B.C.'s Central Coast, where it would be loaded into tankers for shipment offshore.

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