The pipeline spill in Alberta, Canada last month has reignited many conversations about pipeline safety and regulation for the oil and gas industry. These conversations are coming at a critical time for the industry – perhaps even a turning point.
As many are well aware, it is becoming more and more difficult for pipeline projects to achieve the necessary approvals to get off the ground, and the negative press surrounding spills such as this one is at the heart of several groups’ objections.
Keystone Has Become a Key Issue
The stand-out example is of course the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which has been delayed for more than six years. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has admitted that he is not hopeful that U.S. President Obama will approve the pipeline.
With rumors that President Obama will soon announce his decision on Keystone, this most recent pipeline spill in Canada’s oilsands is gaining quite a bit of attention. And while this is in part because of the spill’s timing, it’s also because of its size; this spill is the largest to take place in Alberta in more than three decades.
Will Alberta’s Most Recent Spill Spell More Regulation for the Industry?
The pipeline spill, discovered on July 15, leaked approximately five million litres of emulsion (a mixture of bitumen, water and sand) over an area of about 16,000 square metres south of Fort McMurray. It was a spill nearly 60% larger than the 2010 spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo river that prompted a review of regulations.
Although it’s too early to know, it’s entirely possible that new regulatory requirements could be seen by the industry as a result. Particularly because Alberta’s Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd has announced that the results of the leak’s investigation will be made public and this may result in the National Energy Board feeling the pressure to act.
Learning from the Incident
It does seem like something went wrong in this process. The company says that it’s possible that the spill may have begun as early as June 29, when it was restarted after maintenance. Why the spill wasn’t noticed until up to two weeks later is one of the many questions that investigators will be trying to answer as they aim to uncover the root causes of this incident.
New requirements that could potentially come out of the results of this investigation include scheduled and random pipeline inspections as well as better spill detection technology. It appears likely that either or both of these requirements could have helped this particular spill be detected in a more timely manner.