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Enbridge sets high bar for pipeline safety

Enbridge hopes that increased safety procedures, including magnetic resonance imaging testing on pipelines, will be enough to convince locals to approve its Northern Gateway project.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

As Enbridge Inc. plans to meet with members of Premier Christy Clark's new government regarding its controversial Northern Gateway project in B.C., executives are talking up a new standard for pipeline safety: perfection.

Speaking in Calgary last week, Enbridge market development vice-president Vern Yu said his company has a "stellar" record of safety in transporting oil and gas, where better than 99.9 per cent of liquids travel the pipeline network without incident.

But he acknowledged the record is not flawless.

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"Historically, we've operated in an industry where you were allowed to make mistakes," he said. "You were allowed to spill a little bit of oil and it wasn't a significant issue for the people immediately on the right-of-way or the public at large. What's changed dramatically is that people don't accept that any more."

Mr. Yu said the massive Enbridge Energy Partners' pipeline rupture into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, as well as BP's Deepwater Horizon explosion the same year has changed public perceptions about the energy industry, which he said is a linchpin of the Canadian economy.

But the new scrutiny energy firms face in the wake of such oil disasters means "we need to be perfect."

"We've raised the bar internally," Mr. Yu told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. "No pipeline spill is acceptable."

For instance, he said the company now runs magnetic resonance imaging tools through its 25,000-kilometre pipeline system to check in two millimetre intervals that everything is functioning properly. He said the key is changing the corporate culture from one that accepts a small degree of failure to one that is more similar to the "highly reliable" airline industry, in which there's no acceptable margin of error and mistakes mean "people die."

Enbridge is seeking to build the 1,177-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the coastal community of Kitimat, where diluted Alberta bitumen would be loaded onto tankers for transport to foreign markets. The project has attracted significant opposition from many British Columbians, including First Nations members. Ms. Clark's government has set five conditions for any new heavy oil pipeline to win her approval, including consultation with aboriginal communities, better marine spill protection, and a share of the profits flowing to B.C.

Enbridge is not the only midstream energy company hoping to convince the public it has safety in mind. Vern Meier, vice president of pipeline safety and compliance for TransCanada Corp. – the company behind Keystone XL – said TransCanada has had such standards in place for more than a decade. He said the biggest change for the industry as a whole is that competing companies now work together and share best practices when it comes to safety technology and identifying pipeline defects.

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"That's what's new," Mr. Meier said. "And the recognition that if any of us has an incident, then really we all bear some degree of responsibility."

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