Larissa Stendie: Learning the wrong pipeline lessons

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      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.



      Jimmy Whitemuck

      Jul 26, 2015 at 11:01am

      The northern gateway pipeline would be built to the supply the Asian markets and are currently coal dependant . I would suggest that this pipeline would actually reduce green house gases considering it would allow the Asian markets to be less coal dependant.


      Jul 26, 2015 at 5:09pm

      Clearly pipelines must be improved to protect against large, damaging spills. Clearly running a pipeline to Kitimat is a terrible idea. We must not have tankers negotiating that treacherous waterway in the middle of a magnificent, wild place. Clearly we must eventually switch to alternative energy sources. Oil is finite and it will run out at some point. Now, if you want to be taken seriously on energy matters, you have to acknowledge that oil will be the dominant source for decades. To stop using oil now would be globally devastating. It's not going to happen. Furthermore, bitumen will become an important source of oil in the coming decades when the reserves of easier to pump oil start to dwindle. So the conversation we should be having is how do we harvest/refine/transport bitumen in the least damaging way. Stephen Harper decimating environmental protection on one side, and extremists advocating for an oil-free world on the other accomplishes nothing. We must put the environment first, but we must also accept reality and strive to be part of the solution, not outliers preaching abstinence from the sidelines.

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      Earl Richards

      Jul 27, 2015 at 10:30am

      If the toxic, tar sands had been refined into synthetic crude before transporting, this spill would not have been so damaging.

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      Enviro Engineer

      Jul 27, 2015 at 9:52pm

      The author of this piece has not done her homework. In fact it's a 5 million litre spill of emulsion, only a third of which was actually oil. That works out to 10.4 k barrels.

      Earl Richards says the spill would have been less damaging had it been refined. That's untrue. The heaver and thicker it is, the less it flows and is thus more easily cleaned up. It's the difference between pouring warm maple syrup and cold molasses.

      All the facts are not in yet, but I'll wager this spill will be cleaned up and life will go on. The hypocritical environmentalists will still use their modern conveniences that depend on fossil fuel to manufacture and operate at the same time they revile what feeds them.

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      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 27, 2015 at 10:04pm

      unnamed "enviro engineer":

      Yeah, and I'm against air pollution too, but—hypocritically—I still go on breathing the damned stuff.

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      L. Stendie

      Jul 30, 2015 at 3:40pm

      Dear unnamed 'Enviro Engineer',

      Let's discuss some facts:

      5 million litres =
      41 932 Fluid barrels
      so a third would NOT be 10.4 K

      Furthermore, emulsion content is often between 30-70% bitumen, in combination with contaminated water and other toxins such as benzene and H2S. If you'd like more information about the toxicity of bitumen emulsion, here's a link to the MSDS from Cenovus Energy. If you think bitumen is so easy to clean-up, why have they had such an impossible time in Kalamazoo?

      Canadian oil traded at $37/barrel in recent months. Tar Sands projects and expansions are being shuttered and scrapped, leaving many without reliable work. If you want a realistic projection, the market will be your guide about the viability of this industry, and the writing is on the wall. Ask Total, or Statoil, or Cenovus.

      We are advocating to stop the expanding the tar sands while we wean ourselves off fossil fuels and make the inevitable move to clean energy. The alternatives are real, growing, and will put thousands to work in healthy, stable jobs within their communities.

      This is not a hypocritical viewpoint - it is realistic. And necessary if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

      Lews S

      Aug 3, 2015 at 12:12am

      Volume Calculation
      Enviro Engineer: 1/3 of 5 million liters = 10.4 k barrels
      L. Stendie: 5 million liters = 41 932 Fluid barrels (must be a barrel used in another industry)
      My Calculation: 5 million liters = 31 449 crude oil barrels - (1/3 of would be 10,483 barrels)

      With regards to breathing and air pollution, not only do I breath out more pollutants than I breath in, but I have been known to ex-spell polutants such as methane and on bad days hydrogen sulfide out the other end into the atmosphere.