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Tracking Canada’s History of Oil Pipeline Spills

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Crowds gather to watch cranes joining two ends of an oil pipeline before the official ceremony commemorating the joining of the pipeline of an oil tanker terminal, Portland, Maine, with refineries in Montreal, Quebec, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, WRM 1054.

Last week, CBC News published a series of articles about energy pipeline safety on Canada’s federally-regulated system of oil and gas pipelines, revealing that between 2000 and 2011 Canada suffered 1,047 separate pipeline incidents. Its findings confirm my own earlier research on the history of oil pipeline spills on the network of interprovincial and international oil pipelines that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Energy Board.

Under an access-to-information request, CBC reporters obtained a data set of pipeline incidents covering a period from 2000 to 2011. It showed that the number of incidents swelled from 45 in 2000 to 142 in 2011. This roughly corresponds with what I found for the period from 2000-2009.

These new reports demonstrate the great difficulty and challenge of documenting the history of oil pipeline spills in Canada. Upon receiving a CD with 405 pages of incident reports, CBC reporters quickly realized that they needed to recompile this data to make it machine-readable for analysis. Furthermore, the data sets were inconsistent and, in some instances, incomplete. For the most part, the information on pipeline incidents on the federally-regulated system is provided by the pipeline operators and not by NEB staff. As such, the information arrives in an unpredictable format from incident to incident. This left CBC with no choice but to sift through all of the 1,047 incidents and fill in the blanks with other NEB documents and reports from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (the regulator responsible for reporting on major pipeline incidents).

CBC went a step further by making its own full data set searchable on an interactive map and available for download as raw data. This helps to address what it found to be a great difference between US and Canadian pipeline regulators. CBC found that US regulators provided more data and information regarding pipeline incidents and oil pipeline spills in an accessible manner than the NEB in Canada.

Many of the roadblocks and challenges CBC reporters faced during this investigation have similarly plagued my own research on the history of oil pipeline spills in Canada. I am seeking data on pipeline incidents from the mid-twentieth century to the present and as I push further back into the record, I have found that inconsistent record-keeping on pipeline incidents and problems of self-reporting have been common throughout the history of the NEB. Also, almost all of the archival records of the NEB and Transportation Safety Board (and its predecessor agencies) are held under restricted access by Library and Archives Canada. I have begun the long process of seeking access-to-information approval to look into these often poorly indexed records. I have yet to find a single collection of reports on pipeline incidents on the NEB system (most likely because no such collection exists).

Courtesy of the incredibly helpful and talented staff at the NEB library in Calgary, I have acquired the annual reports of the NEB from 1959 to 1987. Thus far, these reports have shed some light on this history, but like twenty-first century NEB records, the data is spotty and self-reported.

For the most part, the earliest annual reports rarely included data on pipeline failures and would only occasionally make reference to particular incidents, offering very few details. Even though the NEB was ostensibly responsible for regulating pipeline safety, its annual reporting tended to focus mainly on documenting approvals of new construction, accounting for financial expenses, and charting progress toward achieving federal energy policy goals for production, consumption, and export of oil, gas, and hydro-electricity.

The first time the NEB made reference to pipeline failures in its annual report was in 1962 when the board reported the following incidents from the previous year:

In July, the Board conducted an inquiry at North Bay into the causes of and the circumstances surrounding a rupture in the pipe line of Trans-Canada Lines Limited…

…Two pipe line failures on the system of Trans-Canada Pipe Lines Limited were investigated. As a result, approximately 22 miles of pipe line were retested in the North Bay and Gravenhurst areas. In these investigations, the Board and its staff had the close and effective co-operation of officers and staff of the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, for which the Board wishes to express its appreciation. [1]

The board continued later to outline the need for further studies of pipeline manufacturing to ensure safety:

As a result of the investigations into pipe line failures previously referred to, a more extensive study of pipe line steels and pipe fabrication procedures was initiated in cooperation with the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys. [2]

In 1963, the board acknowledged its responsibility for pipeline safety and reported that “during the year the Board staff conducted field inspections relating to pressure testing of pipe lines, gas compressor station facilities, and pipe failures.” [3] This indicated, of course, that pipeline failures continued to be a problem, but it offered no specific accounting for the number, type, locations, and frequency of such failures. Nevertheless, the board continued to study the issue, participating in efforts to establish a code for the design, construction, and operation of oil and gas pipelines. It also consulted with the Central Housing and Mortgage Corporation “concerning the safety aspects of locating housing developments in proximity to pipe lines.” [4]

It was not until 1966 that the NEB included a separate section in its annual reports to document “Pipe Line Leaks, Breaks, and Malfunctions.” From January 1 to December 31, 1965, federally-regulated pipelines suffered a total of 76 incidents. Defects along the longitudinal seam of pipelines caused 36 “small leaks” while corrosion caused another nine. Welding problems and other manufacturing defects, equipment failures, and human error accounted for the remaining failures for 1965. Finally, one incident remained a mystery because the “presence of water and ice is preventing investigation until Spring break-up.” [5]

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The first account of total reported pipeline failures on federally-regulated system, 1965.

These annual reports provide a good starting point for digging up data on oil pipeline spills in Canada, but there is much more work to be done. As with the CBC investigation, I will need to dig deeper into the NEB archive and the records of the Transportation Safety Board, Canadian Transport Commission, and  Board of Transport Commissioners to find specific reporting information on the many thousands of pipeline incidents that have occurred since the founding of the NEB in 1959. I will also need to supplement these records with newspaper accounts of some of the more catastrophic incidents that captured public attention in order to fully understand Canada’s complicated history with oil pipelines.

 

[1] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1962), 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1963), 4.

[4] Ibid, 7.

[5] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1966), 6.

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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