Pipeline firms to reveal emergency plans

Norm Keith
Pipeline safety and emergency response procedures are about to get a whole lot more transparent in Canada. The federal Liberal government, through the National Energy Board, announced it will be issuing orders to oil and gas pipeline companies that fall under its jurisdiction to publish emergency procedure manuals on their publicly available websites by April 29. This is a strong step forward to greater transparency, corporate social responsibility and public confidence in pipeline safety in Canada.

Pipeline safety has been under political, public and occupational safety scrutiny for a number of years. Pipeline expansion has been virtually paralyzed and politicized as recently as the last federal election. However, economic development and transportation of western and northern Canadian resources are dependent on getting resources, such as oil and gas, to deepwater ports for export and sale to world markets. The new Liberal government has been unclear on its position on several major pipeline projects that have been on hold due to First Nations land claims, regulatory review and general public concern about viability and safety.

The occupational and public safety of the transportation of oil and gas was put further into the spotlight after the Lac-Mégantic, Que., rail disaster. On July 6, 2013, 47 individuals died when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the town resulting in an explosion and fire of multiple tank cars.  This also caused some in the pipeline industry in Canada to proclaim the safety of pipelines over rail transportation. 

The new National Energy Board order stipulates emergency procedure manuals must contain information for first responders in an emergency, specific resources for emergency response, the company’s incident command structure and various stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities in an emergency.

The requirement to post the manuals follows the National Energy Board’s consultation process, which had a broad corporate social responsibility methodology. In other words, it involved a wide variety of parties, including pipeline companies, municipalities, first responders, industry associations and Aboriginal groups and provided their views and comments about the type of information pipeline companies should make public — and what level of detail it should reveal.

The new order also requires pipeline companies to describe the reasons and the general content of any information in the manual they wish to protect from public disclosure. For example, if a company wants to protect personal information such as the names and contact information of response and medical personnel, it must make public the reasons for that protection on the basis of personal security and privacy reasons.

The breadth of this order is remarkable; however, it should be welcomed by the pipeline industry. The safety record of the pipeline industry, generally, is very good. More transparency regarding emergency procedure manuals should only serve to foster greater confidence in the industry, in general, and public and occupational safety, in particular.

This move is only one step in making emergency management information publicly available. The board plans to further engage with stakeholders about what other emergency management program information should be made public and about whether further requirements should be mandated within the Onshore Pipeline Regulations for the development, implementation and maintenance of pipeline emergency preparedness and response programs.

Additionally, the corporate social responsibility methodology and approach taken by the National Energy Board to more closely oversee and regulate the manuals and emergency response processes of pipeline companies will likely grow. The federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development recently released a report on the oversight of federally regulated pipelines that was somewhat critical of the National Energy Board’s efforts to date in this area.  

Safe transportation

Pipeline safety has been the subject of intense review and study by many non-governmental organizations as well as government and safety regulators. In the Fraser Institute’s widely respected study on the subject, it was concluded that:

“Transporting oil and gas by pipeline or rail is, in general, quite safe. But when the safety of transporting oil and gas by pipelines and rail is compared, taking into consideration the amount of product moved, pipelines are found to be the much safer transportation method. Specifically, rail is found to be over 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence when compared to pipelines.” 

Therefore, the introduction of more transparency in the publishing of the emergency procedure manuals of pipeline companies is one important step towards a corporate social responsibility methodology of improving public and occupational confidence in pipeline safety in Canada.

By itself, it will not make pipelines that much more safe and secure; however, it encourages benchmarking and best practices among pipeline companies. It creates competition among companies to see who has the best and most effective emergency response plans — plans that will hopefully never be required to be used in and near the communities that benefit from the construction and operation of pipelines in Canada. This approach by the National Energy Board, under the new Liberal government, is a welcome change towards openness and dialogue on the economic value of pipelines without the expense of public or occupational safety being compromised.

Norm Keith, an OHS lawyer and consultant, is a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 868-7824 or [email protected], or visit www.ehslaw.ca for more information.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of COS.