The similarities are deeply troubling.
Last week, a contractor happened to be walking by Nexen’s Long Lake pipeline and discovered a spill of 31,000 barrels of tar sands oil. Five years ago today, a utility worker happened to be walking by Enbridge’s Line 6B near Michigan’s Kalamazoo River and discovered a spill of 27,000 barrels of tar sands oil.
The Nexen pipeline had been leaking for as long as two weeks before the spill was discovered. The Enbridge line leaked for 18 hours before discovery.
Both companies claimed to have state of the art “fail-safe” spill detection systems. In both cases, the fail-safes failed.
In the aftermath of Kalamazoo, Enbridge responded as follows: “Enbridge will evaluate all information and learnings from this incident and apply that information to all of our pipeline operations. We will also share those learnings with the pipeline industry so other operators will benefit from what we have learned.”
This week, Nexen’s CEO said, “This industry grows by sharing and taking lessons from incidents that have occurred in the past.” Where have we heard that before?
Remember what BP CEO Tony Hayward said after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010? “We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event and emerge from it stronger, smarter and safer.”
Or what the Western States Petroleum Association said after the recent spill on California’s Santa Barbara coast? “[Our members] will review the facts surrounding this incident and apply what they learn to prevent future accidents.”
The pattern is depressingly familiar. Spill happens. We’ll learn from this. We’ll upgrade the technology. Next time, our fail-safe systems really will be fail-safe. We’ll strive to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
And then, of course, it does.
The fossil fuel industry’s narrative of “lessons learned” is nothing but PR, a script written by high-priced communication consultants. They never learn. Spills always happen.
The real lesson is that, when it comes to pipelines, it’s always a matter of “when” not “if”—in the last 20 years, there were an average of 250 pipeline incidents per year in the U.S. and Canada.
If we allow the Kinder Morgan and Enbridge pipelines to be built, and more tankers to traverse our waters, the number of oil spills will predictably rise.
Meanwhile, the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines would cause multiple billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere over their lifetime, contributing to the growing climate crisis. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline alone would cause three billion tonnes of carbon pollution over 30 years. As B.C. is gripped by wildfires and drought this summer, we are getting a sneak peek at the new normal of a warming planet.
The lessons learned from these tragic spills shouldn’t be how to improve regulatory oversight or how to build supposedly better pipelines.
The lessons learned must be that piping tar sands oil over delicate wild areas and through human communities can never be done safely. The lessons learned must be to leave fossil fuels in the ground and shift to a low-carbon economy, one based on renewable, clean energy such as solar and wind.
The fossil fuel industry is right. We will learn from these spills—and it will be the death knell for their industry.