Can Enbridge be trusted?

Can Enbridge be trusted to build and operate the Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline in a safe and sustainable manner? Judging from today’s scathing National Transportation Safety Board report on Enbridge’s horrendous pipeline spill in Michigan two years ago, the answer would appear to be a resounding “No”! But that’s just one of the difficult questions faced by Enbridge today.


The basic facts about the Kalamzoo River disaster were already known, but it is still shocking to see the chronology laid out.  Enbridge knew of pipeline problems for five years, but failed to address them. And when the alarms were tripped that fateful day, Enbridge control-centre operatives waited 17 hours to shut down the pipeline (after restarting twice), and only after the extreme rupture was reported to the authorities by a local gas utility.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s As it Happens, NTSB chair Deborah Hersman put the pipeline disaster and the “keystone cops” response, down to “pervasive failures at Enbridge”, as well as weak and complaisant regulation. Hersman reviewed the various problems with Enbridge’s pipeline assessment practices,  noting in particular the failure to consider the combined effects of corrosion and other stresses (a particularly relevant observation with regard to bitumen from the oil sands). Hersman concluded:

They did not have an integrity management program that put safety first.

Ouch. Now take a look at Enbridge’s weasel initial response to the NSTB report.

As a result of our detailed investigation into the accident, and as part of our ongoing continuous improvement efforts, we have taken steps to address lessons learned and make incremental improvements aimed at preventing a similar accident from happening again in the future.

Safety has always been core to our operations. We have reviewed our processes and procedures since the Line 6B incident, and we have enhanced our focus on the safety and integrity of our operations even further. For example, we have made several changes to the structure and leadership of functional departments such as pipeline control, leak detection and system integrity. [Emphasis added]

“Make incremental improvements”? Enbridge is clearly in denial. “Safety has always been core to our operations”? Not according to the NSTB, nor any reasonably objective observer.

Nathan Lemphers of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute argues that “an independent review of pipeline safety and the adequacy of regulatory monitoring and oversight is clearly overdue”, given the woeful record of pipeline spills and safety violations by Enbridge and other Alberta-based pipeline operators. Alberta is criss-crossed by a rapidly growing network of pipelines, transporting various oil and natural gas products. Until recently, there was little public scrutiny of this pipeline network, despite a decidedly uneven safety record. But this year, at least, one spill after another has been in the news, notably a spill into the Red Deer River.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has already proposed its largest fine ever – $3.7 million – for 22 probable violations of safety and environmental laws by Enbridge. But that is a drop in the barrel for an outfit like Enbridge; fines probably need to be an order of magnitude higher to actually provide adequate incentive and sanction.

Also required is much tighter oversight and transparency for  pipeline operators. For example, any alarm should be reported in real time to the relevant authorities. Clearly, Enbridge operators can not be trusted without safety regulators – and the public – looking over their shoulder.


In the U.S., this sorry episode will only increase concerns about the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project. And well it should.

But Enbridge is itself the lead proponent of the Northern Gateway project delivering oil sands bitumen via pipeline to the B.C. coast and onward to Asian markets by a flotilla of oil tankers. Public environmental review hearings are in full swing, and increasing doubts about Enbridge’s ability to put “safety first” may well render the project politically moribund.

But, as I (and others) have argued on previous occasions, the issue is more fundamental than that. Only pipelines that are clearly in the public interest should even be contemplated, in the face of the palpable risks they pose. That’s a test that the  Northern Gateway pipeline fails abysmally, as it is part of a Conservative government energy strategy enabling massive expansion of the oil sands over the next two decades. Such a strategy is incompatible with Canada’s own stated 2050 targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, as Alberta’s GHG mitigation plan calls for 200 Mt CO2e a year by then (with at least half from the oil sands), leaving a paltry 50 Mt for the rest of Canada!

And it gets worse. The International Energy Agency’s 450 scenario is an eminently credible pathway from today’s fossil fuel dependency to a global economy that will meet growing energy needs, yet still with a 50-50 chance of limiting global warming to about 2C above pre-industrial temperatures.

In the 450 Scenario, the primary energy mix is markedly different from that in the New Policies Scenario. The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix falls from 81% in 2009 to 62% in 2035. Global demand for both coal and oil peak before 2020, and then decline by 30% and 8% respectively by 2035, relative to their 2009 levels.

The 450 scenario calls for hefty carbon pricing and an end to consumer and producer subsidies so that global oil demand starts declining within the next decade. It also envisages oil sands production of around 3 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2035, roughly half of Canadian industry projections of 5.8 million bpd (as compared to about 1.6 million bpd today). That translates into greatly reduced future growth of the oil sands, which would peak at only an additional 1.4 million bpd, rather than 4.2 million bpd extra (or more) envisaged.

Instead of recognizing that evident reality, the Harper government continues to peddle a contradictory “balanced” approach of “sustainable” development. After all, fossil fuels will “predominate for many decades to come”, as environment minister Peter Kent told the CBC last May. Sure they will –  if Canada and the rest of the world holds to the IEA’s more relaxed New Policies Scenario, which is based on broad commitments already made, even ones without any implementation plan. But the IEA associates the NP scenario with about a 4C increase in global surface temperature, 2C more than the  scientific consensus deems prudent.

In short, as Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thompson noted in his piece on the Death of Scientific Evidence protest, the Conservatives say they accept the science of anthropogenic global warming, but they sure don’t act that way.

There’s a similar contradiction in Enbridge’s official Climate Change Policy. That statement starts out forthrightly enough.

Enbridge recognizes that there is growing evidence that climate change is a critical global issue. …

But it quickly descends into a vacuous “balanced” approach that once again carefully avoids the real issue.

Enbridge believes that government must encourage GHG mitigation policies and regulations across all sectors of the economy, and involve both energy consumers and energy producers. Government policies must be tailored to our energy intensive and export-based economy, and must enable us to remain competitive while making meaningful reductions in GHG emissions. Policies should establish a defined price for CO2 emissions and compliance options should focus on promoting both near-term reductions and the advancement of technology for larger future reductions over time.

But policies enabling “meaningful reductions in GHG emissions” – meaningful in the sense of actually having a good chance of realizing the global 2C/450 ppm target to which all nations have agreed in principle – can not possibly be “tailored” to a Canadian economy that is becoming ever more dependent on the exploitation of fossil fuels. That is the simple, bald fact of the matter.

Of course, this remarkable confluence of misleading government and industry rhetoric is hardly a coincidence. Enbridge reportedly lobbied hard for the Canadian government’s pullout from the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area Agreement (PNCIMA), a co-operative research program co-ordinated by Tides Canada. And when the Conservatives and launched their well-co-ordinated attack on Tides Canada and its partner environmental groups as “puppets” of “foreign special interests”, Enbridge CEO  Patrick Daniels cheered them on.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Can Enbridge – along with the rest of the oil industry and the Canadian government – be trusted to address the real implications of climate change?

Once again, the answer is obvious.


11 responses to “Can Enbridge be trusted?

  1. Gavin's Pussycat

    ‘contol’, ‘sutface’. [DC: Oops, fixed. Thanks!]

    More seriously, did anyone else reflect while reading on the multiple semantics of ‘integrity’?

  2. Since watching “The Last Mountain”, and then “Gasland”, I have struggled to understand my relationship with the extractive industries. I am at once a customer, seeking low prices; an investor, seeking high returns; and a citizen, gaping with growing horror at all that these huge, powerful industries do to the people who get in their way, to our politics, and to our one and only atmosphere on our one and only planetary home.

    There is value in comparing what they say about pipeline breaks with their words on climate. Two completely different horrors, on different scales, but one policy of showing utter contempt either for human welfare or for the truth.

    And why not? We have let them get away with it.

  3. Holly Stick

    Power & Politics (pipeline segment starts about minute 49) Tom Flanagain agrees with Mulcair that the NG pipeline is dead, Ivison thinks it’s in trouble.

    Flanagan back in January was talking about how to force it through:

  4. Holly Stick

    Wells on pipeline politics (who incidentally declares he is a Fellow at that Riddell funded new school at Carleton Univ)

  5. Holly Stick

    Article from last week by Chris Sorenson:

  6. You’re not making me feel terribly safe. I have an Enbridge pipeline no more than 100 metres north of me.

  7. Of course we can trust Enbridge. I love the Keystone cops.

    OTOH BigCityLib’s post may worry some people.

  8. Of course we can trust Enbridge.

    The Keystone Kops meet the Carry On Spilling Oil gang?