A scathing ruling Tuesday by a U.S. regulator pummels Enbridge Inc.'s response to the massive spill of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, describing it as being so poor that, "you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops."
The Keystone reference is more devastating still because it is being interpreted not only as a reference to the buffoonish policemen of silent film, but to the expansion of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone pipeline in the United States.
In light of this, who can seriously be concerned about "foreign money" and the actions of environmental charities, the usual bugbears for proponents of Enbridge's plan to build a pipeline to Canada's west coast in order to access Asian markets? Enbridge Inc. and the pipeline industry need to be much more concerned about preventing incidents like the Michigan spill and to sharpening their response when such ruptures do happen.
The pipeline industry has a solid record in North America, with a minuscule percentage of oil and gas lost due to failures. It is a fact that pipelines remain the safest means to transport oil and gas.
Nevertheless, opponents are of course seizing on the language of Debbie Hersman, chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. And the damage to the industry has been largely self-inflicted.
"For more than 17 hours and over three shifts, the people controlling the pipeline did not respond to the alarms, pressure differentials or even follow one of their own safety procedures," Ms. Hersman said in remarks posted on the agency's website. Instead of halting the flow, Enbridge workers actually twice pumped more oil into the ruptured pipeline – and into the Kalamazoo River.
It is not the sort of ruling that is likely to build public confidence in pipelines, especially coming after three spills this spring in Alberta, one of them from an Enbridge line. Another of the spills released oil into muskeg in the far northwest of Alberta. In that case, Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. did not detect the problem, only learning about it after another company's employees spotted the spill from an aircraft.
Given the vast network of pipelines, and the huge amount of oil and gas being moved, some accidents are probably inevitable. It is in the industry's interests that the risk is minimized and the response is credible.