5 facts about pipeline incident figures

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to get balanced information on any contentious subject? Pipelines are no exception – it can be hard to separate rhetoric from hard facts.

When it comes to pipeline incidents – things can get confusing. There are a lot of different statistics. Here’s some context to help you understand the facts behind the figures:

#1 All incidents are not created equal

There are lots of different types of incidents: right-of-way, facility, employee injury, driving, the list goes on. Incidents on rights-of-way are often the most serious, because those happen in the strip of land above buried pipelines and have the greatest potential to affect people and the environment.

But what differentiates an incident from a significant incident? There’s a big difference between a pinhole-sized leak that is detected before it poses any kind of risk, and a major spill involving hundreds of barrels of oil.

That’s why CEPA has adopted a set of criteria that defines a ‘significant incident’. It involves one or more of the following:

  • A serious injury or fatality
  • A liquid release of greater than 50 barrels
  • An unintentional ignition or fire
  • A pipeline rupture

In 2014, there were four incidents categorized as ‘significant’.

The majority of incidents are minor, such as small pinhole leaks. These minor incidents need to be addressed, but they pose little risk to the public or the environment.  In 2014, CEPA member companies reported a total of 122 natural gas and liquids releases. Approximately 80 per cent occurred in pipeline facilities.

#2 More incidents reported means more issues dealt with sooner

Significant or not, our goal is zero incidents, and yet in 2013 there were actually more minor gas and liquids pipeline incidents reported than in any of the three previous years. 2014 showed a significant drop, but it was still up over some previous years.

In the last few years, CEPA members have ramped up their pipeline inspection and leak detection activities. Technology is improving all the time, and that’s helping our member companies detect more ‘potential’ problems before they actually pose a risk.

For instance, in 2013, during their annual leak survey, one pipeline operator detected and repaired 20 small leaks, using highly sensitive gas leak detectors. By identifying and repairing small leaks like these, they reduced the risk of more serious incidents – but they also added to the reported numbers of overall incidents. So the increase in reported incidents has positive implications for overall pipeline safety.

#3 Why pipeline incidents happen

Between 2010 and 2014, metal loss or deterioration caused 79 per cent of pipeline incidents. That includes things like cracking, corrosion and material defects.

But when it comes to preventing pipeline failure, technology is our friend.  Pipeline operators have an arsenal of sophisticated tools for monitoring pipelines and detecting leaks – and through the Canadian Pipeline Technology Collaborative, they’re combining their expertise in a collaborative effort to develop ever more sophisticated tools.

You can read more about some of the different technologies available in our ‘pipeline innovations’ blog series.

#4 Size matters

We’ve already seen that pipeline incidents are on the rise due to our advancements in leak detection, but when you look at the volumes released, you see a different picture. Over the past 12 years, Canada’s transmission pipelines have transported about 12 billion barrels of crude oil and other liquid products. Of that, .0005 per cent spilled. Here is a year by year summary for the past three years:

  • 2012: 4,397 barrels
  • 2013: 2,196 barrels
  • 2014: 554 barrels

When it comes to gas leaks, it’s not so much the volume that’s of concern, but rather the chance of ignition. Of the 98 natural gas pipeline incidents that occurred between 2010 and 2014, only three per cent resulted in an unintended ignition, and fortunately there were no serious injuries or fatalities.

#5 Transmission pipeline incidents are only one part of overall incident figures

Definitions and incident reporting requirements can vary widely from regulator to regulator, which is why there are so many different numbers out there.

The incident numbers reported by regulators also include all types of pipelines, not just transmission pipelines, whereas CEPA only reports on our member’s pipeline incidents. For example, the Alberta Energy Regulator reported more than 700 pipeline incidents in 2012, less than 10 per cent of which were on CEPA member transmission pipelines.

We have recognized and are concerned that different measures make it harder to be clear about safety results. CEPA is engaged in work with pipeline regulators on performance metrics to help address this variance.

Make your own mind up about the facts

Now that you understand the facts behind the figures, check out our 2015 Pipeline Industry Performance Report. It’s everything you need to know about how Canada’s transmission pipeline operators are performing; the good, the bad and the efforts we’re making toward improvement. It’s part of our ongoing efforts to give all Canadians the true facts about their pipeline infrastructure.