Oil industry tries to cap pipeline safety worries

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Battered and bruised by Enbridge’s disastrous Michigan oil pipeline leak in 2010, smaller incidents more recently and ramped up anti-oilsands activism, Canadian pipeline operators are fighting back.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) said safety is its top priority as its members try to go from an average of three major incidents per year to none.

"Our goal is zero the same way Air Canada’s goal is zero," CEPA president and chief executive officer Brenda Kenny said Thursday on Parliament Hill.

Her defence of pipelines puts the spotlight on CEPA’s Integrity First program to promote best practices among pipeline operators for preventing accidents, responding to them, cleaning up afterward and educating the public.

The program doesn’t immediately change the way pipeline operators work, but Kenny said CEPA has to highlight a program that’s been developing "incrementally" over the last four years.

"I would fully acknowledge that, as a sector, we’re coming to this late in terms of going public with the programs we have underway," she said, adding that oil pipelines are vital until "each of us chooses to walk everywhere we go."

University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper says that’s still too soft an approach to fight off oilsands and pipelines opponents — especially in provinces far removed from the oil patch.

He says it would be more effective for the industry to tell pipeline skeptics the energy industry is "contributing enormous amounts to the dwindling prosperity of your rust belt industries, so a little gratitude would be in order."

Meantime, the National Energy Board (NEB),­ a federal agency,­ is paying special attention to Enbridge and reviewing the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the company’s massive July 2010 spill in Michigan, where about three million litres of oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River from a ruptured pipeline.

NEB chair and CEO Gaetan Caron posted an open letter online earlier this month, confirming his officials are also examining Enbridge’s management practices.

"In the next weeks and months, we will be conducting safety audits to review and confirm that improvements, particularly to their control room practices in Edmonton, are satisfactory," Caron said in the letter.