Oil Sands

History of Oil Spills in Canada

History of Oil Spills in Canada

Canada is the fourth-largest producer of oil in the world. It is also the third-largest exporter of oil globally.1 The majority of their crude is produced in the oil sands region of Alberta.2 More than 840,000 kilometres of pipelines transport the black gold across the country and to the US.3 Pipelines are the safest and most efficient way of moving oil in bulk.4 Nevertheless, oil spills in Canada have a long and dark history.

Oil pipeline spill near Little Buffalo, Alberta

Oil pipelines continue to pose a significant environmental threat from leaks and ruptures. Oil spills are devastating. They are difficult to clean and can make an area inhospitable to wildlife for decades.5 In 2011, a burst pipeline near Little Buffalo, Alberta contaminated more than three hectares of beaver ponds and muskeg in a densely forested area.6 It was only the presence of a nearby beaver dam that prevented the oil from spreading over a much wider area.7 Sadly, the beavers themselves had to be euthanised due to contamination.8 The cleanup time was predicted to take years.9

How many oil spills in Canada take place each year?

In 2018, Canada had 89 reportable oil spills with 246,021 litres of crude released.10 In 2017, 173 pipeline incidents were reported.11 This represents an increase of 41 per cent compared to 2016, in which 122 were reported.12 Between 2005 and 2014, an average of 55 oil pipeline incidents occurred each year, with 84 per cent resulting in spills.13 Leaks and spills are endemic to long-distance pipelines in Canada, and they often happen at random.14 

Though the amount spilled by pipelines represents a small fraction of the total oil delivered, in absolute terms, it has resulted in the release of millions of litres of oil into the environment. The industry has reduced the percentage of losses from oil spills over the past century. However, this is not to eliminate environmental pollution. Instead, it is to improve economic efficiency.15 

Plains Midstream oil spill

This is evident in the way oil companies respond to spills. Plains Midstream, the company responsible for the Little Buffalo spill in 2011, was also accountable for a second pipe rupture in 2012. In this instance, no handy beaver dam was available to prevent the oil from spreading. Instead, almost half a million litres of crude leaked into a creek that flows into the Red Deer River.16 

Alberta’s energy watchdog concluded that Plains Midstream did not inspect pipelines frequently enough, and it had not paid attention to government warnings. It had failed to enact sufficient mitigation measures once the leak had occurred. It was charged with two counts of violating environmental laws. A fine of CAD $1.3 million was levied for both spills.17

Who responds to oil spills in Canada?

Pipeline companies have incident management teams to implement emergency response plans specific to each pipeline.18 Once a leak is detected, the pipeline must be shut down.19 These teams travel to the site to repair the leak and start the cleanup.20 

Municipal emergency services may also respond to oil spills.21 Additional crews of clean-up specialists, biologists and environmental experts will work to contain the spread and clean up the damage.22 Wildlife response units “may be brought in to prevent birds and other wildlife from coming into contact with the spill”.23 Meanwhile, regulators will work with the pipeline operator and other organisations to identify the incident’s cause.24 Regulations hold Canadian pipeline operators liable for the entire cost of a pipeline spill.25 

How many oil spills have occurred in Alberta, Canada?

On average, Alberta has an oil spill every two and a half days.26 There were at least 155 spills in 2014, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator.27 Nearly half of all Canadian dangerous goods incidents occur in Alberta.28 This is unsurprising given that the province produces 80.5 per cent of the country’s crude from oil sands.29 

Why are there more oil spills in Alberta, Canada?

Oil sands bitumen is thicker, more acidic and therefore more corrosive to pipelines than conventional crude.30 Oil sands pipelines spilled three times more per mile than the US average for conventional crude, between 2007 and 2010 in Midwestern states.31 Bitumen also contains as much as 11 times more sulphur than conventional crude.32 This can cause central nervous problems and irritation to the eyes, skin and upper respiratory system.33 

These figures demonstrate the hazard that oil sands pose for Canada’s environment, even when using the safest possible transportation method. 

Sources

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  2. Nrcan.gc.ca. (2017). Crude oil facts | Natural Resources Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-data/data-analysis/energy-data-analysis/energy-facts/crude-oil-facts/20064.
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  6. 2nd largest pipeline spill in Alberta history leads to charges | CBC News. (n.d.). CBC. [online] Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/2nd-largest-pipeline-spill-in-alberta-history-leads-to-charges-1.1311723 [Accessed 17 Feb. 2021].
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  15. Kheraj, S. (2020). A History of Oil Spills on Long-Distance Pipelines in Canada. Canadian Historical Review, 101(2), pp.161–191.
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