A huge toxic spill in Alberta, Canada, is raising more questions about the safety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the safety of Canada’s own pipeline network. The company responsible for the spill, Apache Corp., a Texas-based company, kept its size quiet for 12 days after the spill was first discovered. The Dene Tha First Nation tribe, which is dependent on much of the land that’s been destroyed in the spill, is understandably livid about the entire situation. According to ThinkProgress, they said every tree and plant in the spill area died.
Over the past 37 years, Canada has seen an average of two spills per day. Not per week, or per month, or per year… per day. Thus, this particular spill is not an isolated incident. Furthermore, the size of the spill isn’t exactly isolated either. Though the rate of “incidents,” as Alberta’s provincial government calls them, has been declining over the past decade, the fact is they’re still quite common.
Despite this appalling track record, the Keystone XL pipeline will not have state-of-the-art spill detection technology, though TransCanada insists it will be safe. The technology they plan to use is intended only to detect high-volume spills, meaning they won’t necessarily detect spills when they’re still small and possibly easily controlled. According to Bloomberg-Businessweek, the pipeline would have to be spilling 12,000 barrels per day before the standard spill detectors would raise an alarm. (Does that mean it won’t detect 11,000 bpd? Sound VERY safe – ed)
While these companies insist they’re adopting zero-tolerance policies when it comes to leaks, they’re remarkably resistant to adopting new leak technology, which could detect pinhole-sized leaks and leaks smaller than 10 barrels per day. It should be obvious that these relatively tiny leaks can become big problems if they aren’t noticed and fixed quickly.
Besides Canada’s spill problems, making Keystone XL more of a risk than it needs to be, the U.S. is not exactly pristine when it comes to spills either. The Bloomberg-Businessweek article also mentions that this country spilled an average of over 112,000 barrels per year from pipelines between 2007 and 2012, and, unlike Canada, our spills have been increasing in frequency (clearly because of too much government oversight – snarky ed). The most recent major spill was from the Mayflower tar sands pipeline, operated by Exxon-Mobil, which spilled thousands of barrels of oil into a lake, as well as drainage systems, in Arkansas in April, forcing the evacuation of several neighborhoods and closing major highways.
Many of the spills occurring in Canada are from pipelines operated by TransCanada; in fact, they had a large number of leaks in the original Keystone pipeline—12 in the first year—despite their claims that leaks would be around once every 7 years. So they don’t seem to be very good at ensuring the safety of their pipelines.
Even the TransAlaska pipeline has had at least one leak or spill per week since 1995, leading to calls for better leak detection systems in 2011. Despite BP Alaska’s insistence that they employ good leak detection equipment and practices, only one spill had been found remotely; the rest were usually noticed by workers, with the most common cause being corrosion on the outside of the line.
The sheer number of spills in both Canada and the U.S. should serve as a wake-up call that the industry still cannot self-regulate. Nor does it care much, if at all, about the environment and certainly not about the people dependent on that environment in the vicinity of their pipelines. Generally, despite all the technology available today to detect small leaks before they become large spills, all we can really expect from additional pipelines is a higher rate of spill incidents, leading to a higher rate of environmental damage.