On Pipelines, Oil, and Risk: An FAQ
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Q: What is a pipeline?
A pipeline is a means of transporting products from one point to another via a piping system. Oil pipelines run crude oil and petroleum products from the oil source to the communities that require the gas, or to an alternate point from which the oil can be shipped or transported somehow. Oil pipelines generally run underground or underwater, but sometimes certain sections can be found running above ground. An example of an oil pipeline is the Mississippi Canyon Pipeline that carries gas from an offshore drilling site in the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana, connecting there with two interstate pipelines onshore. The Mississippi Canyon Pipeline uses 30” diameter piping, runs 45 miles, and has a capacity of around 800 million cubic feet of gas per day . It is owned by Enbridge Offshore Gas Transmission L.L.C.
Q: How does a pipeline leak or spill?
No oil pipeline can 100% guarantee a leak- or spill-free operation. Even outspoken pipeline advocacy groups admit, “While every pipeline company is working to achieve incident-free operations, accidents do happen.”  A major factor in the bursting of pipelines is corrosion. Pipelines are usually constructed out of carbon steel that is coated with various protectants, instead of using expensive but structurally sound stainless steel . There is also recent indication that the life span of the pipes may be overestimated by some companies, leaving questionable lines subject to corrosion . There are also other factors in pipeline leaks, like the failed gasket that led to the Elk Point, Alberta leak in the summer of 2012 , and excavation projects that disturb pipelines. When oil is being barreled and transported by tankers at the coastal end of an underground pipeline, other causes of spills like shipwrecks must be considered as potential threats too.
Q: How much gas do they spill?
For the year 2009, Enbridge reported 69 spills in Canada and 20 in the U.S.A. (America has different standards for reporting spills), amounting to a total of 8,353 barrels of oil  (one barrel equals about 150 litres of oil). British Columbian online environmental news publishers, The Watershed Sentinel, totaled a decade’s worth of Enbridge’s spills from 2000 – 2010: 132,715 barrels . In those ten years, Enbridge was responsible for leaking about 20 million litres of oil throughout North American fields, forests, streams, rivers and seas. Of course, Enbridge is only one of the hundreds of pipeline companies in North America.
Q: Who is responsible for cleanup?
Pipeline companies like Enbridge rely on their own response crews when spills occur. They use trained teams to execute response plans in efforts to mitigate environmental damage. Enbridge uses equipment like skimmers, containment booms, and vacuum trucks and techniques like dredging in their responses to spills, and even have specialized equipment that supposedly keeps wildlife away and out of harm . However, the effectiveness of such equipment and techniques must be called into question in light of such examples of insufficient cleanup efforts as the response to the July 2010 Kalamazoo River spill, which is still being contained and cleaned today.
Q: What are the dangers of a spill?
Oils spills obviously have serious environmental and health consequences. Pollution, fires, property and land damage, water poisoning, and the destruction of habitats of birds, fish, and many other animals are a few of the environmental risks inherent in pipelining oil. For humans, oil spills hold the potential for cancer and leukemia, and offshoots from the consequences of the environmental damage, not to mention serious economical loss .
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Q: Who is Enbridge?
Enbridge is a North American pipelining company (with many subsidiaries) that claims to be the “largest single conduit of crude oil into the United States.”  They operate many inland and offshore, liquid and natural gas pipelines throughout The U.S.A and Canada, and employ around 6,900 workers . It is important to remember that Enbridge is a corporation, and is concerned with providing financial return for investors. Though preventative measures to avoid spills are taken, Enbridge is not an organization with expressed environmental or health concerns other than how such matters might affect investment return.
Q: What is the proposed pipeline?
Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would run from the Alberta tar sands through British Columbia to the Pacific coast. A 36” diameter pipeline would be installed over a 1,177 km route from outside Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C., carrying about half a million barrels of petroleum daily to the ocean . It is estimated to cost $5 billion CAD . Construction of the pipeline is currently slated to begin mid-2014, and oil proposed to flow in 2017 . The economic benefits of petroleum trade with Asia are the clear reason for Northern Gateway’s inception.
Q: What are the areas vulnerable to spillage?
The proposed pipeline runs very nearby or through populated areas of British Columbia such as Vanderhoof, Fort St. James, Bear Lake, Burns Lake and Prince George on its way to Kitimat. Inhabitants of these towns and their properties would be under high risk in the event of a leak or spill. The Northern Gateway pipeline would cross more than 1,000 natural waterways including the Fraser and Skeena watersheds  and allow oil tankers constant access to the naturally vivacious Great Bear Rainforest region of the British Columbian coast .
Q: What happens if it leaks or spills?
If a spill or leak were to occur along the Northern Gateway pipeline, the environmental consequences would be severe. Streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater could be contaminated, and the local human and animal populations would risk poisoning and disease. Ecosystems could be done damage beyond repair. In addition to the harsh damage to marine and forest life, one report claims that a tanker spill near Kitimat has the potential for local and provincial economic damage that greatly outweighs Northern Gateway’s potential economic benefits .
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Q: What is the government’s stance?
B.C. Premier Christy Clark is outspokenly ambivalent on the Northern Gateway project. She acknowledges the economic benefit it would bring, but has expressed five criteria that Enbridge must meet. These criteria include second-to-none response plans to ocean or land spills, and the addressing of First Nations’ claims and honouring of treaty rights. The National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency have formed a joint review panel on the Enbridge Northern Gateway program. The panel is in the process of assessing the environmental consequences of the Northern Gateway pipeline. They consider all relevant material from those concerned and involved, and will release a recommendation to the Governor in Council on whether or not the project should proceed and if so what terms and conditions Enbridge must adhere to . As of now the Panel is requesting more information from Enbridge Northern Gateway regarding potential hydrocarbon releases and the geographic effects of the proposed route . The Panel’s delay and the Premier’s ambivalence could be seen as signs of a reluctant province.
Q: What is Enbridge’s assurance?
Enbridge claims, “Pipelines are the safest, most efficient and most reliable way to transport liquid and natural gas energy resources.”  One must ask how such a safe and reliable means of transportation can yield so much leakage and spillage with such consistency. As mentioned earlier, no pipeline can be guaranteed to be leak or spill free. The Northern Gateway project promises that their “goal is to have zero spills”  and that they plan on taking extra precautions, highlighted by 24/7 monitoring and safety valves near water crossings . Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project advocates repeatedly assure British Columbians that there is no safer way to transport natural gas than pipelines , which seems to somewhat undermine the damage done in areas like the Kalamazoo River.
Q: Why is this not enough?
Strict monitoring and strategically placed released valves only highlight the imminence of a leak or spill along the Northern Gateway pipeline. While these measures are effective responses to gas leaks and spills, they aren’t magic wands. If oil spills into the ocean, irreparable damage will be done to marine life. If oil leaks into B.C.’s forests, irreparable damage to animals and plants will be done. When oil leaks into your backyard, you will be very unhappy.
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WHAT IS THERE TO DO?
It seems there are two alternatives to proceeding with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project as planned. The first would be to impose stricter regulations regarding leak and spill prevention that would bring the operation nearer to a 100% guaranteed spill-free standard. The other would be to wave goodbye to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project entirely and assess where else $5 billion might be spent to stimulate British Columbia’s economy and generate jobs.
At enormous costs, pipelines could be made out of stainless steel to prevent corrosion. While it seems unlikely that pipeline companies would spring for this cost, other precautions can be taken to reduce corrosion. Stronger steel can be sought out and afforded, as well as stronger protectants for coating the outside of the pipes . The pipelines could also be cased in outer pipes to prevent damage to the inner ones that carry the oil. As a rule, pipelines should be clearly marked so as to avoid accidental disruption by construction or excavation projects. Of course, marking the route of the pipeline comes at the expense of marring the natural, rural or urban landscape with such markers.
Of course, alternative investments that have less potential for environmental and human harm should be strongly considered. In the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ publication, “Enbridge Pipedreams and Nightmares,” Marc Lee outlines alternate investment options in green-oriented fields. Lee reveals how investments in such fields could translate into 3 to 34 times as many jobs as the Northern Gateway project would . He offers alternative jobs in fields like construction, education, and manufacturing that would contribute four specific areas of alternate investment: a switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources (of which Lee suggests that Enbridge be a participant), implementing transportation alternatives, improvements in energy efficiency to homes and buildings, and reduction of GHG emissions via advancements in the recycling system .
Considering the imminent threat a pipeline, however fortified, would bring to the province and its local communities and the potential economic benefits of alternative investments, the more appealing option seems to be a scrapping of Enbridge’s plan for the Northern Gateway project altogether. Perhaps an alternate pipeline could be constructed that would avoid risks to British Columbian forests and coasts, like a pipeline that runs eastward from the tar sands. Or better yet is a realization of Marc Lee’s proposal, investments in clean energy sources and a movement away from natural gas.
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HOW DO WE DO IT?
The Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel formed by the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has been holding forums in B.C. and Alberta in order to accrue information from the public about concerns over Enbridge Northern Gateway. However, access to these public forums is limited, so members of the public must submit advanced questions and hope to be included in the panel’s process . As an individual, it can be frustrating to try and negotiate the system of deliberation on Northern Gateway. Fortunately, there are several organizations intent on halting the project, and one could reach out and become involved with these organizations in efforts to aid such a cause.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is a non-profit organization that conducts in-depth research regarding matters that might be taken for granted otherwise. The CCPA has a mandate to provide balanced debates, debunk myths generated by corporations, the government and the media, and offer sound and sustainable solutions to the problems it uncovers . The CCPA forefronts relevant environmental and economic issues, and is a leading voice in the call to review alternatives to the construction of Enbridge Northern Gateway. Marc Lee’s CCPA publication is extremely valuable in the struggle against the pipeline as it uncovers how Northern Gateway would not only be environmentally hazardous, but economically unsound. You can get involved as a member or donor with CCPA via their website: www.policyalternatives.ca
Forest Ethics is another group that has decidedly aligned itself opposite Enbridge Northern Gateway. Their cause is expressly concerned with the protection of forests and waters in British Columbia, as well as ensuring the environmental responsibility of industries and corporations. Forest Ethics are outspoken anti-pipeline advocates, and have criticized the Joint Review Panel for a lack of transparency in their decision making process . To be a part of Forest Ethics’ activities or to donate, visit their website: www.forestethics.org
The Blue Drop organization is a much more grassroots movement. It is extremely accessible to environmentally minded individuals in British Columbia. Their stance is decidedly against “the destruction of land and water by resource extraction projects.”  Blue Drop provides immediate information regarding ongoing with the Enbridge Northern Gateway process, and organizes events aimed at making the voices of the opposing public heard by policy and decision makers. Blue Drop has begun a trend of people pinning blue felt water droplets to their lapels, backpacks, jackets and whatever else creating a visible symbol of public resistance and solidarity against the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. Join the Facebook group and make your own blue drop! Just visit www.bluedrops.ca
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1. “Mississippi Canyon Gas Pipeline,” Enbridge U.S. Operations, accessed March 16, 2013, LINK
2. “Operating Pipelines,” Pipeline 101, accessed March 16, 2013, LINK
3. “How Safe Are North America’s Pipelines?” Globe And Mail, last modified Aug. 23, 2012, accessed March17, 2013, LINK
5. Nathan Vanderklippe, “Enbridge Pipeline Reopens After Spill Near Edmonton,” Financial Post, last modified June 20, 2012, accessed March 16, 2013, LINK
6. “Looking at Enbridge’s Spill Record in 2009,” Enbridge, accessed March 16, 2013, LINK
7. “Enbridge Spills,” Watershed Sentinel, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
8. “Emergency Response,” Enbridge, accessed March 20, 2013, LINK
9. “Fuel Pipelines,” Groundwork Environmental Justice Action in Southern Africa, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
10. “Pipeline Systems,” Enbridge U.S. Operations, accessed March 17, 2013, LINK
11. “Company Overview,” Enbridge U.S. Operations, accessed March 17, 2013, LINK
12. “Project at a Glance,” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, accessed March 18, 2013, LINK
13. Marc Lee, “Enbridge Pipedreams and Nightmares,” pp. 4, Policy Alternatives, accessed March 20, 2013, LINK
14. “Timeline,” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, accessed March 18, 2013, LINK
15. “The Facts – Enbridge Northern Gateway,” Forest Ethics, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
17. “Single spill could wipe out economic gains from Northern Gateway,” Media Release, UBC Public Affairs, accessed March 18, 2013, LINK
18. “The Joint Review Process,” Gateway Panel, accessed March 18, 2013, LINK
19. “Panel Session Results and Decision Questions and Answers,” Gateway Panel, accessed March 18, 2013, LINK
20. “Pipeline Safety,” Enbridge U.S. Operations, accessed March 17, 2013, LINK
21. “Pipeline Assessment and First Response Plan,” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
23. “Pipeline Safety,” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
24. “Fuel Pipelines,” Ground Work Environmental Justice In Southern Africa, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
25. Marc Lee, “Enbridge Pipe Dreams and Nightmares,” pp. 17-19, Policy Alternatives, accessed March 20, 2013, LINK
27. “Panel Session Results and Decisions Questions and Answers,” Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
28. “About,” Policy Alternatives, accessed March 19, 2013, LINK
29. “Canada’s Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker hearings” Forest Ethics, accessed March 20, 2013, LINK
30. Blue Drop Facebook page, accessed March 20, 2013, LINK
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“About.” Policy Alternatives. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
Blue Drop facebook page. Accessed March 20, 2013. LINK
“Canada’s Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker hearings.” Forest Ethics. Accessed March 20, 2013. LINK
“Company Overview.” Enbridge U.S. Operations. Accessed March 17, 2013. LINK
“Emergency Response.” Enbridge. Accessed March 20, 2013. LINK
“Enbridge Spills.” Watershed Sentinel. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
“The Facts – Enbridge Northern Gateway.” Forest Ethics. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
“Fuel Pipelines.” Groundwork Environmental Justice Action in Southern Africa. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
“How Safe Are North America’s Pipelines?” Globe And Mail. Last modified Aug. 23, 2012. Accessed March17, 2013. LINK
“The Joint Review Process.” Gateway Panel. Accessed March 18, 2013. LINK
Lee, Marc. “Enbridge Pipedreams and Nightmares.” pp 4-26, Policy Alternatives. Accessed March 20, 2013. LINK
“Looking at Enbridge’s Spill Record in 2009.” Enbridge. Accessed March 16, 2013. LINK
“Mississippi Canyon Gas Pipeline,” Enbridge U.S. Operations. Accessed March 16, 2013. LINK
“Operating Pipelines.” Pipeline 101. Accessed March 16, 2013. LINK
“Panel Session Results and Decisions Questions and Answers.” Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel. Accessed March 18, 2013. LINK
“Pipeline Assessment and First Response Plan.” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
“Pipeline Safety.” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. Accessed March 19, 2013. LINK
“Pipeline Safety.” Enbridge U.S. Operations. Accessed March 17, 2013. LINK
“Pipeline Systems.” Enbridge U.S. Operations. Accessed March 17, 2013. LINK
“Project at a Glance.” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. Accessed March 18, 2013. LINK
“Single spill could wipe out economic gains from Northern Gateway.” Media Release, UBC Public Affairs. Accessed March 18, 2013. LINK
“Timeline.” Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. Accessed March 18, 2013. LINK
Vanderklippe, Nathan. “Enbridge Pipeline Reopens After Spill Near Edmonton.” Financial Post. Last modified June 20, 2012. Accessed March 16, 2013. LINK