I keep an eye on pipeline news in the general media around the world (which means about 90% North American news) and it is remarkable how two proposed pipelines in particular have become mainstream political issues in the last 6 months. Both are planned to carry diluted bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands deposits in northern Alberta:
- The Keystone XL pipeline expands the existing Keystone Pipeline system with 2200 km of DN 900 line heading generally south and slightly east towards the central and southern United States, ending at the Gulf coast of Texas; the oil is intended for US consumption
- The Northern Gateway pipeline, also DN 900, heading directly west for 1770 km from near Edmonton to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia well north of Vancouver Island from where the oil will be exported to China (this has a parallel DN 500 line that will convey natural gas condensate in the opposite direction, to be used as diluent for the bitumen)
The objections to these pipelines are multifaceted. The most common themes seem to be firstly a general objection to the production and use of tar sands bitumen, on the grounds that it is a particularly high CO2 source, and secondly a belief that “all pipelines leak” and the resulting inevitable environmental damage will be intolerable. The Keystone XL pipeline runs over part of the vast Ogallala Aquifer which is a highly valued groundwater resource. There is a high level of concern about contamination if the pipeline leaks. The Northern Gateway runs through relatively pristine mountain terrain and lots of indigenous land, and there are also concerns about marine effects of a spill from the Kitimat terminal or a ship. (This is a superficial overview of a complex series of issues.)
These are really hot topics in the US. Last year 1200 people protesting against the Keystone XL pipeline were arrested outside the White House. Just today there was a report of an online petition against the same line gathering 500 000 signatures in 7 hours.
Partly because I don’t follow these debates very closely and partly because I have a pipeline focus I naturally thought at first that all these protests were about the pipelines themselves, but lately it has become clearer that the pipelines are proxies for bigger matters, mainly the CO2 issue. I confess to some sympathy for that view, but nevertheless it grates to have the “all pipelines leak” view presented so often that it just seems to be accepted as fact by the US and Canadian public.
Having said that, the North American record of pipeline failures would not be helping the proponents of these new pipelines. Just today there was a rupture of a DN 750 gas line in Louisiana, fortunately in a forest and with no ignition. This was a bigger incident than usual, but there are reports of some sort of pipeline failure every week, and even if many of them are distribution or production lines the general public would not make the distinction between those and transmission.
We can only be grateful that pipelines in Australia (1) have a vastly better safety record and (2) have not yet become politicised (apart from a little spin-off from opposition to coal seam methane projects). We should hope that it stays that way.