The Canadian economy is dependent on oil and gas, including the pipelines that transport them. Billions of dollars in fossil fuel exports pay for nearly all the things Canada doesn’t produce; Canada is a net importer of everything else.
Yet the opponents of fossil fuels don’t seem to care that their opposition to pipelines will damage Canadian exports and competitiveness. Perhaps they welcome a decline in economic growth and living standards as being conducive to lower domestic energy consumption.
Western nations in general, and North America in particular, have increased oil consumption very slowly in recent years. Any carbon dioxide emissions that may contribute to global warming – and recent climate modelling puts earlier scary predictions into question – have plateaued. The only increases have come from natural gas, and those largely at the expense of coal, which is in great part being replaced by gas in the generation of electric power.
But this isn’t enough to satisfy the almost religious fervour of the anti-hydrocarbon zealots. They wish to forestall all new oil or gas pipelines and shut down existing ones.
Next, they want to limit and then prohibit the production, sale, transport and use of all fossil fuels – even clean-burning, lower-carbon-emitting, abundant, cheap natural gas.
There’s a valid question to be asked about the safety of oil and gas pipelines, in the risk to people and the environment. However, that question must also be asked about the alternatives: rail and truck transport.
In 2017, there has been only one oil or liquid products incident in Canada, of 200,000 litres of condensate in Alberta’s Strathcona County. There were no incidents in 2016. In 2015, there were three: 17,000 barrels of condensate, 31,500 barrels of oil emulsion, and 100,000 barrels of oil, water and gas emulsion, all in northern Alberta. In 2014, there were two incidents in northern Alberta, of 70,000 and 60,000 barrels each. In 2013, there was one incident, of between 400,000 and 600,000 litres of water, mixed with about 1,000 barrels of oil. The pattern is similar as we go back further: no more than one to three incidents a year.
In contrast, large-scale transport by truck is costly and no safer than rail, And rail is is far worse than pipeline. While releases of products tend to be much less per incident, there are far more incidents. In 2016, 108 accidents involved dangerous goods, down from 145 in 2015 and below the five-year average of 141 and the 10-year average of 151, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Sixty-three main-track derailments were reported in 2016, an 18 per cent decrease from the 2015 total of 77, and a 28 per cent decline from the five-year average of 88. The reported dangerous goods leak incidents totalled 30 in 2016, a nine per cent decrease from 2015’s 33 and a 59 per cent decrease from the five-year average of 72. Most of these were oil, oil products or chemicals.
Major regulatory changes have brought about improved safety measures, including better rupture-resistant rail cars. Yet there are still far more accidents involving rail cars than pipelines every year. One such incident, at Lac-Megantic, Que., in 2013, killed 47 people.
At some point, nearly all railways run through populated areas. While there may be other complications that increase the overall risk of pipelines, they rarely go directly through cities or towns.
Pipelines are far less expensive per unit of product moved, improving competitiveness for oil and gas producers. This also lowers costs to the consumers of their products.
Pipelines proposed to carry western oilsands and fracking-generated liquids to the United States or ports would be equipped with the latest monitoring and failsafe technology to prevent or mitigate spills, and the latest in new materials that are resistant to corrosion or ground shifts. And the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline to Burrard Inlet is along an existing right-of-way with a strong safety track record.
While the rail companies have improved their performance and safety, they still have far more incidents than pipeline companies.
Canadian economy and society will continue to be petroleum-based – from energy to plastics and other synthetic products – for the foreseeable future.
Safety can and should always be improved. But those who fight pipelines and shrug at the higher risks of rail transportation, including human fatalities, are naive at best and deceitful at worst.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst for the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.