Study shows only tiny fraction of oil shipped by pipeline ever spills

1 juin 2015

Researcher cautions that volume of oil spilled is more important than proportion

OTTAWA, June 1, 2015 — A study of oil pipeline transmission in Canada shows that only a tiny fraction of the oil ever spills.

But the real issue, says the researcher who did the study, is that so much oil is shipped by pipeline that even if spills account for only a minuscule amount of the total volume shipped, it’s still enough to cause serious environmental damage. And because there is no way to guarantee that at least some of the oil shipped by pipeline won’t leak at some point, the only way to reduce the risk is to reduce the volume of oil shipped.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in Canadian and environmental history in the Department of History at York University in Toronto. He became interested in learning how much oil was spilled overall in Canada during the last half of the 20th century, and is presenting the results of a study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Kheraj analyzed incidents reported to the National Energy Board along the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which runs from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C. What he found was that relatively few spills were reported, and that well over 99.9 per cent of the oil shipped from Edmonton reached its destination. Only three spills qualified as “major”, which he defines as involving more than 1 million litres of oil, and these took place in 1966, 1977 and 1985.

Kheraj’s research uncovered no discernable pattern in the spills. “When you look at these events, they tend to be accidental or random,” he says, “and caused by forces of nature or operator error.”

He also states that new technologies had little effect on spill rates. That, he says, is because pipelines are “heavy infrastructure,” and if a new technology is developed, it’s unlikely the entire pipeline will get ripped up and replaced by a new and improved version.

He says Canadians have to realize that shipping a hazardous product is risky. “In a half-century of experience in moving oil in this manner, we’ve never developed a system that’s leak-proof,” he says. “The only way to reduce risk is to reduce the flow, and this is what makes it a complicated decision. The proportion of oil spilled isn’t actually the important figure. The total volume of oil spilled is. It sounds reassuring to say that 99.9 per cent of the oil shipped on a pipeline gets where it needs to go. It’s less reassuring to say that the rest of the oil doesn’t get there.” And he says that to anyone living along the path of a pipeline, even a spill that represents only a tiny proportion of the total amount shipped can have disastrous consequences.

Sean Kheraj will be presenting his research on June 2 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Socials Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “A Silent River of Oil: An Environment History of Pipeline Spills in Canada, 1959-2012” and will take place at 1:30 pm on the University of Ottawa campus in the DMS building, room 1150.

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