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Northern Gateway Pipeline – A column by Andrew Weir-Jones

February 18 2013, Andrew Weir-Jones

I have been watching, with great interest, the protests surrounding hearings regarding the Northern Gateway pipeline and the stereotype that seems to follow projects like this in Canada and the United States.

Granted, there have been a number of pipeline failures over the years. Some have been catastrophic to the point where wetlands, farmlands, waterways and protected areas have been polluted by oil and other products that are moved in pipelines.

Yet, even though we live in a country with tens of thousands of kilometres of pipelines, the failure rate is not just quite low - it is almost non-existent.

So, what are these companies doing to mitigate these types of disasters?

How, for instance, do they keep tabs on pipelines in close proximity to hills and river crossings? The old way would involve personnel walking the lines and looking for leaks and helicopters flying above.

In these cases, opponents make a valid point because pipeline operators are behaving in a ‘reactive’ manner. Only when they see an upheaval in the strata, a black splotch, something gushing out of the ground, do they shut down operations. By this time, the damage is done and everyone involved has to react to the failure.

This way of operating is archaic, and there is a better way to keep tabs on pipelines and whether or not they are going to break. Today, thanks to the development and evolution of a multitude of technologies, pipeline operators such as Enbridge are able to monitor environmentally sensitive areas of pipe remotely and in real time.

Without a doubt, the Northern Gateway project will cross a number of environmentally sensitive areas on its way from Alberta to BC. I also acknowledge that Enbridge has learnt from past pipe failures (their own, and others) and will continue to employ real time, 24/7 monitoring on these sensitive areas as they have done in Fort McMurray, Alberta where two new lines cross the Clearwater River (a heritage site) and climb a very steep and unstable hillside prior to running south to Edmonton.

Enbridge has deployed a state of the art fibre optic monitoring system that constantly watches for elevated strain on both pipelines. If the strains observed become critically exacerbated, Enbridge operators are immediately informed to shut down operations until the danger can be addressed by field personnel.

These are not the actions or policies of a ‘reckless’ company, rather this activity presents as a company that is fully cognizant of the multi-faceted impact of a catastrophic failure. 

Clearly, the debate over the Northern Gateway is not as black and white as some would like us to believe. I, for one, support the project because Canada needs to take a front row position in the world market with oil sands crude that will allow for our product to be sold at fair market rates, and not some 30% below market as is currently happening. There seems to be some horrible irony at play here when no one is protesting (that loudly at least) that we stop oil production in Canada; just our ability to be taken as a serious world player.

If Enbridge continues to demonstrate responsibility as they have done with the two new lines in Fort McMurray, Canadians should support the company’s efforts to get the Northern Gateway line built because in absolute terms, why should we just ‘give away’ our natural resources at below market value?

The practice of selling natural resources below market value is not logical, and in facts hurts Canadians in the long run.

Enbridge is taking the initiative to mitigate the risk of their infrastructure causing damage, or harm to citizens, the environment and assets by introducing 24/7 real time monitoring. This is a step in the right direction.

It will never be possible to solve all of Canada’s problems, all of the time. However, should oil and gasrelated companies continue to recognize that they are going to be held fully accountable for their actions in the event of a catastrophic failure, I hope that more will follow Enbridge’s lead by publicly demonstrating a desire to satisfy the concerns of Canadians.