Alberta Oil Spill History Uncovered, 1975-2013

Leslie Young, Anna Mehler Paperny, Francis Silvaggio, and a production team from GlobalNews.ca have just compiled and published the most comprehensive chronology of Alberta oil spills, spanning a period from 1975 to 2013. Following an eleven-month investigation, the reporters acquired a nearly complete set of records regarding spills of crude oil, crude bitumen, and synthetic crude in the province of Alberta for the past thirty-seven years. The data came from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), revealing the spill volume, location, cause of spill, and facility operator for each spill incident.

Here are some of the highlights from this ground-breaking report:

Since 1975, Alberta has averaged two oil spills every day

Between 1975-2013, Alberta’s oil pipeline transportation network (which now totals more than 400,000 kilometres) has suffered 28,666 crude oil spills

The largest oil spill in Alberta since 1975 occurred in December 1980 on a pipeline operated by Pembina that released more than 6.5 million litres of crude oil (41,500
barrels) into an area east of Valleyview

The province does not keep records of oil spills under 2,000 litres that originate from somewhere other than a pipeline (wells, pump stations, etc…)

The most useful feature of this impressive investigative report is its geographic information. The GlobalNews.ca team acquired geographic data for each of the 28,666 crude oil spills and plotted that data on a searchable map. While I hope the team makes this data readily available for other researchers, the current tools are quite useful for understanding the spatial dimensions of this history of oil spills:

Map of the Number Oil Spills in Alberta, 1975-2013

This map plots the number of oil spills on pipelines and other facilities regulated by the Energy Resources Conservation Board between 1975 and 2013. It is searchable by company and by cause. Unfortunately, the data on this map is not sortable and it cannot be extracted easily for further analysis.

Look-Up Map of the Volume and Location of Oil Spills in Alberta, 1975-2013

This map shows the volume, location, operator, and cause of all oil spills in Alberta on pipelines and other facilities regulated by the Energy Resources Conservation Board. It includes a tool to search by location. Again, this map has its limits. For some reason, users cannot zoom out fully to see the entire map of Alberta. It also does not permit users to extract the data for analysis.

In spite of the inability to analyze this data with more detail, this report is outstanding. It comprehensively uncovers the chronology of oil spills in Alberta history in staggering detail and provides excellent context and analysis of the contemporary regulations that govern the industry. This work now calls for historians to chart the findings on a timeline, analyze the data, and explain the context for this important period of Canadian economic and environmental history.

Such analysis of historical data is necessary for assessing the potential risks associated with future oil pipeline construction. The most recent field surveillance summary report from ERCB indicates that liquid hydrocarbon spills on pipelines and other oil facilities continues to be a problem in the province of Alberta. In 2011, more than 5 million litres of liquid hydrocarbons spilled on the provincial oil pipeline network. According to ERCB data in this report, the volume of oil spills has been variable from year to year, spiking in certain years as a result of particular catastrophic oil spills, such as the 2011 spill near Little Buffalo. Hopefully, the complete set of oil spill records from ERCB will be made publicly available online so that researchers can analyze the complete timeline of this important historical period.

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