Skip to main content

A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta. on Tuesday, June 12, 2012.JEFF McINTOSH/The Canadian Press

Calls for an independent review into pipeline safety in Alberta are growing, with some saying it's even more urgent now that a U.S. investigation has sharply criticized a Calgary company's efforts to clean up a major oil spill.

"If we don't have tough regulations in place making sure that our pipelines are very safe, then people are not going to accept pipelines coming through their territories," said Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta.

The left-leaning advocacy group is one of 54 signato ries to a letter to be released today that calls on Premier Alison Redford to formally look into pipeline safety.

That number more than triples the 17 names attached to a similar call made in late June.

Environmentalists make up the largest number of names. There are local organizations such as the Davey Lake Group to global giants such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.

Landowners rights groups from across Alberta come next.

Public sector unions including the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the United Nurses of Alberta are on board. So are First Nations and public health groups.

"The time for leadership on pipeline safety is now, and the first step must be an independent pipeline safety review," says the open letter to Ms. Redford.

Earlier this week, the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. compared the efforts of energy company Enbridge Inc. to clean up a massive spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River to silent-movie slapstick characters the Keystone Kops. The board said the company reacted too slowly and entirely mishandled the pipeline break.

With major projects under discussion to take oilsands bitumen both into the United States and through British Columbia to the West Coast, Mr. Moore-Kilgannon said Alberta can't afford that kind of black eye.

"That's not a good image for Alberta and Alberta-based companies," he said. "It's in all of our interests that we do a review, that the premier commit to that now."

There have been three pipeline-related spills in Alberta in recent weeks.

In late May, 3.5 million litres of oil and salt water leaked into muskeg near the northern community of Rainbow Lake. On June 7, up to 475,000 litres of oil leaked from a pipeline into the Red Deer River near Sundre, the source of drinking water for many central Alberta communities. Also in June, a leaky gasket at a pumping station released 230,000 litres of oil near Elk Lake in northeastern Alberta.

Ms. Redford has said she doesn't want to decide on a pipeline review until the Energy Resources and Conservation Board completes its own investigations.

Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Thursday that the Alberta government will wait specifically for the report into the Plains Midstream Canada pipeline breach that fouled part of the Red Deer River before deciding if a broad review is necessary.

"Premier has asked myself and the minister of energy to do the review of the Plains Midstream pipeline leak and from there, when the regulator has gone through that process, we will take a look at that one and see ... is there more that we can do," she said.

Ms. McQueen said Alberta is concerned that Enbridge's Kalamazoo spill may undermine public support for the proposed Northern Gateway project that would pipe oilsands crude from the province to the B.C. coast.

She said Northern Gateway is going through what she called a strong regulatory review process. But Ms. McQueen said that Enbridge should be doing all it can to reassure the public that the pipeline would be safe.

"This is an important project for Alberta and the nation," she said. "I think Enbridge has to talk about this particular project that they are working towards and what they will do to ensure that safety is first and foremost as it crosses the different areas with the pipeline."

Speaking in Calgary, Energy Minister Ken Hughes said the Enbridge spill would have unfolded much differently had it taken place in Alberta instead of Michigan.

"Had that circumstance developed in Alberta, and had the company been notified by the regulators that there were problems with the pipeline, and had that company not responded to that, if there was any risk to people or to the environment, they would have been shut down for not responding," said Mr. Hughes.

"It's quite different here. We have a very high standard here of expectation around performance."

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace said ERCB reviews of Alberta pipeline spills take on average about nine months to complete. That's not fast enough, he said.

"Based on our spill average, that means we can expect 484 spills before the premier decides whether to actually initiate the review. That's simply not acceptable."

Farrah Khan of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment agreed.

"We would like to see an independent review done much quicker than that. If we're not able to find answers soon about why we're having these spills that are impacting drinking water and wildlife — and human health, at the end of the day — I think we need to make sure the province sees it as a real priority."

The energy board points out millions of litres of oil are piped safely every day. It cites statistics showing that leaks are at all-time lows of 1.6 incidents per kilometre of pipe.

Some say that figure hides as much as it reveals and downplays the more than 600 leaks a year in Alberta. It doesn't include leaks from pipeline-related facilities such as pumping stations and does include many kilometres of lines that are no longer used.

The board doesn't release all leak locations or the contents of those leaks.

Critics also wonder about the cumulative impacts. Industry figures show pipelines have released at least 3.4 million litres of hydrocarbons into the environment every year since 2005.

Others point out much of Alberta's more than 400,000 kilometres of pipe is now 40 and 50 years old. As well, the sweet crude and natural gas the lines were designed to carry are shifting to heavier and harsher substances such as dilbit, an acidic and abrasive blend of fluids and oilsands bitumen.