You can’t help but notice reading the papers these days, that the environmental movement in North America seems to be at war with pipelines, or to be precise, two pipelines: Keystone XL from Alberta to Texas and Northern Gateway from Alberta to the British Columbia coast.
The safety argument ignores the fact that XL and Northern Gateway are just two of dozens of major pipelines already crossing the border and safely moving crude oil thousands of miles north-south and east-west every day. (*Full disclosure: Suncor has its own pipeline network, which supports our operations, and supports the development of infrastructure that gets our products to various markets.)
Like power transmission lines, pipelines are a fundamental part of North America’s energy infrastructure. And while no one especially likes having them “in their backyard,” without them, modern life would be impossible for the rest of us. For example, when the Trans-Alaska pipeline recently shut down for maintenance, the United States lost ten percent of its crude oil supply overnight.
Pipelines, far from being a major hazard, are actually the safest and least-polluting way of moving crude oil to markets and refineries. According to statistics from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), Canadian pipelines move approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid products (crude oil and refined petroleum products) each year. Everyday, that’s approximately 3 million barrels of crude. To move this volume by road or rail would involve 15,000 tanker truck loads or 1500 rail cars each day. The increased transport carbon emissions alone would be unacceptable, let alone the extra congestion on our roads and the constant risk of road accidents.
Compared to the alternatives, pipelines are very safe. That said, accidents are like those with air travel: they're rare, but highly newsworthy, sometimes giving the impression that they are a common experience. Obviously, 100% reliability/safety is, and should be, the goal. While incidents do happen, the industry’s reliability statistics really do tell the story. Between 2002 and 2009, 99.9998% of product transported on CEPA member pipelines was done safely.
It appears the battles over Keystone XL and Northern Gateway are not about pipelines; they are about oil sands and in particular, climate change and the debate over oil sands’ associated greenhouse gas emissions.
The reality is that we need energy, and pipelines are a critical part of the lifestyle that we enjoy, to heat our homes, drive our cars, fuel planes, and cook our food. All aspects of energy infrastructure have their issues. Our task is to properly manage and mitigate them to ensure energy security and safety while meeting social, economic, and environmental concerns.