Another Day, Another Spill

This article examines the environmental effects of the pipeline industry, with specific attention paid to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It further discusses limitations of Canada's regulation of the industry.
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Pipelines have always been controversial. The debates have generally centred around the economic benefits in contrast with the environmental damages pipelines create. One thing most can agree on, is that oil spills are often a nasty consequence where pipelines are concerned. Most recently, there was a spill from the TransCanada owned Keystone pipeline. The spill was spotted on late October 2019, where 1.4 Million Litres of tar sands oil was released into the North Dakota wetlands.

Tar sands oil, composed of a mixture of clay, water, and bitumen, are known to be especially difficult to clean after a spill. The diluent allowing the mixture to flow through the pipelines quickly evaporates, creating toxic air pollution and leaving behind a sludge that sinks into the wetlands. And unlike regular oil that floats, bitumen can’t be skimmed off the top.

Wetlands are essential to the biodiversity of our environment, and function as breeding grounds for migratory birds. The North Dakota wetlands especially. It holds the breeding grounds for about 10% of the continent’s waterfowls, and 50% of ducks in the US. However, once bitumen takes hold in a wetland, it’s impossible for the wetland to fully recover. Given how sensitive wetlands are, this spill means permanent damage.

Wetlands in North Dakota
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The Pipeline Industry

Are we actually still surprised when oil spills happen? If we are, it’s about time we stopped. In TransCanada’s risk assessment documents of the Keystone pipelines, a major spill was only estimated to occur once every 7 to 11 years. Where our environment is concerned, those odds should not be acceptable in the first place. But the reality of the situation is so much worse. This spill marks the second major spill within a 2 year time span, and between 2010 to 2017, there were 3 major leaks in the pipeline. If we want to do the math, the number of major spills is roughly around 3 times higher than what TransCanada estimated.

TransCanada understating the risks of their pipelines is not a one-time occurrence. Continuously, TransCanada has underrepresented the damage their pipelines have, and will cause. In 2016, TransCanada reported a spill of 187 gallons of oil in South Dakota, which was revised a week later to 16800 gallons, marking a 90-fold increase. In 2017, TransCanada reported a spill of 210,000 gallons of oil were spilled. In reality, federal investigations found that 407,000 gallons were spilled. That’s almost twice as much as what TransCanada declared.

In general, there is no reason to believe that the two instances given above were the only examples of number tampering in the pipeline industry. This makes statistics and information on pipelines particularly difficult to grapple with. Pipeline companies will always understate the risk pipelines pose and the amount of oil that was spilled. The ‘state of the art’ technology pipelines generally boast will detect only about 39% of spills and accidents. Moreover, it is actually quite common for leaks to go unreported for months, and even years. When problems, risks and numbers are so frequently either misrepresented, or completely unavailable to the general public, it becomes challenging for voters and the general public to make fair evaluations on the risks of pipelines.

Environmental Impacts

Nevertheless, the data we do have suggest that once an oil spill has occurred, the damage to the surrounding environment is highly significant. According to a study published in 2018, with an oil spill, 85% of product released by the incident will not be recovered. All of that will stay within the environment and lead to persistent, long term impacts.

The 2010 BP oil spill that dumped 4.3 million barrels of crude oil into the gulf is a great example. The immediate effects on the surrounding wildlife was obvious, with oil drenched dolphins, and pelicans turning up dead. The long-term effects are more interesting to assess. According to a report produced by BP 5 years after the spill in 2015, the Gulf is returning to pre-spill conditions at record rates, mostly thanks to BP’s cleanup efforts, and there were no significant, long-term population-level impacts to species in the Gulf. This report referred to by BP, which coincidently is no longer available on their webpage, is naively optimistic in the face of reality. The site of the spill, 9 years later, still contains a high concentration of oil and its breakdown production. This results in an overall decrease of organic matters, worms, small invertebrates and other organisms that are vital to the health and survival of the environment. Consequently, the recovery of these ecologies will take much longer than a decade, and previous studies suggest oil spills will impact organisms in the Gulf for more than 40 years. What adds fuel to the fire are the dispersants that were used during the clean-up process. Dispersants work like dish detergent: it breaks up oil slicks into small droplets. Dispersants contain harmful chemicals to marine life, and are shown by studies to make oil 52 times more toxic. More than 2 million gallons of dispersants were used in the Gulf, and that wreaked havoc on organisms at the foundation of the marine food web.

Therein lies our problem. We do not have better alternatives than dispersants. There’s nothing else that could have been used. But if dispersants are not used, oil slick stays on the surface, to the detriment of marine animals and a large number of birds. If dispersants are used, it prevents animals from being trapped in the oil slick, but it also destroys critical organisms that keep the marine food web intact. It is a trade off in a lose-lose situation. And that’s the takeaway. When there are pipelines, there will be spills. Once an oil spill happens, it’s there to stay.

Canadian Regulations

Well, one might ask, what about the Canadian government? Surely there are regulations in place that would make things different in Canada? Not quite. There are two main problems. The first being a lack of reliable record keeping. Due to different jurisdictions, different agencies are responsible for collecting pipeline data. Unfortunately, different agencies have different definitions of what constitutes as a pipeline related ‘incident’, in addition to very different reporting and recording methods. Records between agencies do not match up, and without accurate and thorough reports, it’s impossible for the Canadian government to properly regulate and monitor pipelines. The second problem lies in the insufficiency of Canadian pipeline regulations. Companies are often not held responsible for damages caused. The Rainbow Pipeline Spill of 2011 in Alberta is an excellent example. Around 28,000 barrels of oil was spilled in a Cree Community, partly due to the company restarting the pipeline despite alarms indicating a spill. The Alberta provincial government decided to pursue neither legal, nor financial sanctions against the company. As a matter of fact, the UN have criticized Canadian legislation regulating the oil industry for negatively affecting the environment and the indigenous populations.


At the end, we should really be evaluating whether pipelines are truly the way forward. Many would argue that pipelines are the safest way to transport fossil fuels. That’s absolutely true. However, being the ‘safest’ option when transporting fossil fuels still does not make pipelines a good option. We are at a junction in time where we have other options and can decide to decrease and stop the use of fossil fuels. Constructing more pipelines is the last thing we need in the collective effort to move away from fossil fuels and protect our environment. As long as there are pipelines, there will always be oil spills that cause extensive and permanent damage to our environment and communities. We should have learned from history that the best technology of our times being used to prevent disaster is not adequate insurance when the consequences of failure are so high.

Jay Lu is an associate editor at the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She is currently a first-year student at the McGill Law faculty, and completed her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and World Religions.

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