When a pipeline spills…

Pipelines do spill, but rarely. Nobody wants an incident to occur, least of all the pipeline companies. Spills can cost a lot of money and, if not properly contained or cleaned up, they can cause harm to the environment.

We know that this can happen. And when it does, great efforts are always taken to ensure that it gets cleaned up right away.

Pipelines have a 99.999% safety record, but that’s not good enough. In a September interview with Alberta Venture, TransCanada CEO, Russ Girling, emphasized that the pipeline industry, as a whole, absolutely must take steps to do better.

“The industry has to be responsive and it has to be empathetic. These incidents shouldn’t occur. When they do, the expectation is that there will be a professional, immediate and complete response. I think in some cases that has occurred and in some it hasn’t,” he said.

“Obviously it’s in those cases where it hasn’t occurred that we lose trust, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re TransCanada or any other company, we all get painted with the same brush. As an industry, we have to be better at what we do and ensure that everyone that participates in our industry operates to the same standards, and those standards will get higher.”

Straight talk – the bare facts of pipeline leak response

Nothing in life is risk free. That’s true for energy choices too. Windmills sometimes kill birds; nuclear reactors melt down; solar panels fail and cause waste. We consume energy and thus we must make choices as to how to get that energy.

Given the current state of technology, fossil fuels are still the dominant choice. This can and will change, but as long as it’s true, pipelines are one of the best, safest ways to move those fuels.

Enough boosterism – let’s talk facts.

Fact – the Canadian pipeline industry is thoroughly regulated.

Fact – pipeline companies are responsible for cleaning up the mess and mitigating the damage. That’s the right thing to do!

Fact – some of the best scientists and engineers in the world work for pipeline companies to ensure that, when a spill occurs, people, water and the environment are protected.

Fact – when a spill occurs, the party that’s found liable is responsible for the cost.

Fact: the National Energy Board (NEB) has a number of regulations in place that dictate how pipeline companies must prepare for and respond to a pipeline spill. These regulations include such things as having an Emergency Response Plan in place, maintaining an up-to-date and regularly reviewed emergency procedures manual, which is filed with the NEB, and having a continuous educational program for all parties who would be involved in responding to a spill.

Those are the straight up facts. Now, here’s the skinny on what pipeline companies do when a spill occurs.

Most importantly, they determine how to safely conduct an emergency response, while simultaneously containing and reducing the risk to the public and the environment. This happens by going through the following steps:

  • Protecting property – this includes evaluating the spill’s proximity to residents.
  • Identifying and managing the site
  • Evaluating the hazards and risks – this includes environmental concerns like the spill’s proximity to waterways and wildlife, the weather, and the type, amount and behaviour of the hydrocarbons that has spilled.
  • Selecting the appropriate protective clothing and equipment
  • Managing information and resource coordination
  • Implementing response objectives
  • Decontaminating
  • Cleaning up the site

If a company, including our members, does not adhere to this process, they are accountable and pay a stiff price in terms of actual costs, reputation, and the loss of actual and/or social licence. Communities don’t want companies in their backyard that can’t follow the rules. CEPA and its members understand and support that.

Canada’s transmission pipelines have been operating safely and reliably for decades, but there’s always room for improvement. When a spill occurs, our member companies are responsible. And we take that very seriously as we strive for zero incidents.


The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 110,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2011, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.