Canadian Minister promoting the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline: ‘Our objective is to have zero serious spills’

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Though the State Department officially closed the final comment period for the final stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline earlier this week, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver continued to make the rounds to press for approval and public acceptance of the controversial project in New York City this week — complete with the government’s standard talking points on American job creation, despite reports that permanent job creation in the U.S. will be far more modest once construction is finished.

Oliver’s job as salesman was made only more difficult by the attention generated by the recent Exxon pipeline rupture in Arkansas, which sent 157,000 gallons of crude oil from oil sands spilling into neighborhoods and wetlands. He acknowledged in an interview with Raw Story that such spills don’t help public perceptions.

“If there’s a spill, every company is affected reputationally, even if one company may have to pay the financial cost because it’s polluter pay,” he said.

But, he said, “When there is a spill, it’s dramatized, even though it’s minuscule as a proportion, it’s definitely not trivial in places where it occurs.”

That’s something the residents of Marshall, Michigan know all too well. In July, 2010 the Canadian company Enbridge reported a 30 inch rupture in its pipeline that the EPA is still requiring them to do additional clean-up on. The pipeline rupture spilled an estimated 819,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Oliver, though, claims, “Pipelines are by far the safest form of transportation of oil and gas,” he said. “The safety record in Canada, and I think it’s pretty much the same in the United States, is 99.9996 percent. So, it’s safer by far than any other form of transportation.”

But while there are more accidental releases on trains numerically, mostly due to leakage, Bloomberg reporters Rebecca Penty and Jim Efstathiou Jr. found that concerns about railway spills highlighted in the State Department’s report — performed by the conservative Manhattan Institute — were, at best, methodologically flawed.

U.S. pipelines carried 474.6 billion gallons of crude and petroleum products in 2012 and reported 2.3 million gallons spilled, an effective rate of 0.0005 percent, according to John Stoody, spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipelines.

Over the entire decade ending with 2012, railroads hauled 11.2 billion gallons of crude with 95,256 gallons spilled, the majority from just one 2008 accident in Oklahoma that accounted for 81,103 gallons, according to the rail association.

In addition, the reporters discovered that pipelines, unlike trains, need not report any spill under 5 gallons. Moreover, as highlighted by David Malitz in an analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the agency in charge of pipeline safety in the United States, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the Department of Transportation, highlighted major flaws in its own data collection on which the industry and the government rely. According to its own report, the PHMSA noted the likelihood of underreporting even before taking into account the lack of data on spills over five gallons:

Most of our data collection relies on third-party reporting from regulated companies. This is convenient, and it goes directly to the source. It also introduces serious biases and gaps in the data we collect. Despite the best intentions and professionalism, the regulated industry has an institutional bias (and probably a liability aversion) in determining the causes, circumstances, and consequences of failures. Accident investigations—the limited number that we do—have shown some significant differences between what a company reports and an objective view of these events. Reports from companies also reflect large numbers of blanks and “unknown” data, particularly in the most serious cases—exactly where it is most critical that we have good data.

In other words, even the regulators in the United States aren’t totally sure how much oil goes from pipelines into ecosystems in the United States each year.

Oliver says that the issue of spills “is being overseen by the regulators,” but that the decision whether to complete the Keystone XL pipeline is about trade-offs. “It is inevitable, it seems to me, that the United States will continue to build pipelines,” he said, citing both the safety record and the cost of rail and road transportation. “If they don’t continue to [build pipelines], they’re going to have to find another form of transportation which is more costly and less safe, or stop moving energy, which would have dire consequences for the economy and the people of the country.”

“Since they’re going to continue to build pipelines, why not build one which the U.S. State Department has said is safer than existing pipelines?” he added rhetorically. “The reason they said that,” he claimed, “is because technology’s improving and because Keystone has imposed on it some 57 conditions that they’re going to have to comply with.” (The NRDC argues that only 12 of the 57 conditions set forth by the PHMSA as part of the agreement differ from the current standard conditions for pipeline development in the United States.)

Still, Oliver persists that importing oil from Alberta’s oil sands is an overall better choice for the environment than the ones America currently makes. “We are also a more responsible environmentally than the other countries that are exporting oil to the United States, most of whom have no rules at all,” he told Raw Story, “And often we don’t even know what their emissions are because they don’t have a transparent system the way we do [in Canada].” He added, “Canada is a choice, if what you look at is reliability and environmental responsibility.”