Open Data on the History of Oil Spills in Alberta, 1975-2013

Laying of gas pipeline between Carbon and Calgary, Alberta. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1446-17

Global News has made a very substantial contribution to the study of the history of oil pipeline spills in Alberta. As I previously wrote in May, Leslie Young, Anna Mehler Paperny, Francis Silvaggio, and a production team from assembled the most comprehensive chronology of oil pipeline spills in Alberta, covering a period from 1975 to 2013. One of my initial criticisms of this report was that the data was not openly available to researchers. Well, I spoke too soon.

Global News has now released the complete data set for all incidents reported to the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) between 1975 and 2013. This is a massive .csv database with more than 60,000 incident reports. I have just begun to dig into the data, but it looks like this record holds great promise for historical analysis. Hopefully I will be able to sort out a timeline of oil pipeline spills to show the broad statistical history and track trends in the industry.

The release of this data set could not have come at a better time as Canadians continue to struggle with the environmental hazards of oil transportation. In June, three more significant oil pipeline spills occurred in Alberta. Plains Midstream — the company responsible for the massive 28,000 barrel (~4.45 million litres) pipeline spill near Little Buffalo in April 2011 and the Red Deer River oil spill in June 2012spilled another 950 barrels (~151,000 litres) of oil condensate in an area northwest of Manning. The following week, a pipeline operated by Pennwest Exploration leaked an estimated 31 barrels of oil (~5,000 litres) and 400,000-600,000 litres of salty waste water into the muskeg wetlands not far from Little Buffalo. Finally, Enbridge suffered yet another large synthetic oil pipeline spill in northern Alberta seventy kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray. The company’s Line 37 pipeline released 750 barrels of light synthetic crude oil (~119,000 litres). And a couple of weeks ago, residents of Lac-Mégantic suffered an unspeakable tragedy when a train derailment resulted in a massive explosion, fire, and crude oil spill in the small Quebec town.

These recent oil spills and the tragic loss of life at Lac-Mégantic are a vivid reminder that oil is a hazardous material. Whether shipped by truck, rail, pipeline, or tanker, moving oil is dangerous and never safe. Hopefully, a better understanding of the environmental history of oil pipeline transportation will help Canadians assess all the risks involved.

[UPDATE] On the day I published this article, news broke regarding an unusual type of heavy oil spill in Alberta in Cold Lake. For the past six weeks, Canadian Natural Resource Ltd. has failed to stop what the Toronto Star describes as “an underground oil blowout that has killed numerous animals and contaminated a lake, forest, and muskeg.” While this was not an oil pipeline spill, I thought I should include this additional incident given that the blowout has resulted in a spill of an estimated 4500 barrels of bitumen (~715,442 litres). This latest spill event raises questions about the safety and environmental consequences of in situ Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) bitumen extraction.

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