Every day in Alberta, a complex network of pipelines operates right under our feet, moving oil and gas to markets at home and beyond. The AER regulates more than 422 000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines and provides inspection and incident response support for an additional 12 000 kilometres of pipelines regulated by the Alberta Utilities Commission. For all of these pipelines, we work to ensure they’re safe.
Our work starts before a pipeline is built and continues after it is no longer in use. From the first application, to construction, operation, and eventually closure and reclamation, our requirements help ensure that pipelines are designed and operated safely.
To make sure operators are following the rules, we regularly inspect pipelines, confirming that operators are monitoring for and managing potential hazards associated with each individual pipeline they operate. We also educate operators on pipeline integrity issues to help reduce risk. Pipelines with greater risks—such as those that transport sour gas, are near water bodies, or belong to a licensee with poor compliance history—receive greater scrutiny.
If the AER believes that an operator is unable to meet regulatory requirements, or if there is a risk to the public or the environment, we can immediately suspend the pipeline until the problems are corrected. Compliance and enforcement decisions are available on our compliance dashboard and range from warning letters, administrative penalties, orders, and prosecutions.
All of this work, combined with the increased focus on pipeline safety by the oil and gas industry, has resulted in a reduced number of pipeline incidents.
In Alberta, all pipeline incidents, including those in which a pipeline is hit but does not leak, must be reported to the AER.
Pipeline incidents can be caused by pipeline failures resulting from corrosion due to poor maintenance or construction practices; equipment failure or material and welding defects; environmental incidents, such as ground movement or flooding; or human interference, such as when a pipeline is hit by heavy equipment operations during ground disturbance or through vandalism.
To make sure a pipeline incident gets the appropriate response, the AER rates them as high, medium, or low consequence based on criteria1 that consider the impacts on the public, wildlife and the environment.
High consequence: Incidents that could have significant impact on the public, wildlife, or the environment, or that involve the release of a substance that affects a large area or waterbody.
Medium consequence: Incidents that could have a moderate impact on the public, wildlife, or the environment, and no impact on a flowing water body.
Low consequence: Incidents that involve little to no substance released and have little to no impact on the public, wildlife, and the environment (but no impact on a water body).
Regardless of the consequence rating, operators are responsible for all aspects of incident response—from having a detailed emergency response plan in place to taking actions to remediate and reclaim a site. These requirements are outlined in Directive 071: Emergency Preparedness and Response Requirements for the Petroleum Industry.
The AER also conducts comprehensive investigations after serious incidents to determine the cause of a pipeline failure. Any trends or learnings identified are shared with the individual operator, and industry as whole, to help prevent similar incidents in the future. The findings from our investigation and any enforcement action we take are also made public on our compliance dashboard
Over the past 10 years, even as the length of pipelines grew by 11 per cent, the number of pipeline incidents dropped by 44 per cent, driving the pipeline failure rate to 1.1 incidents per 1000 kilometres of pipeline in 2016 compared to 2.2 incidents in 2007. This decrease is largely due to improved requirements, industry education, improvements to inspection programs, and a greater focus on pipeline safety within industry.
The number of pipeline incidents in Alberta dropped by three per cent in 2016 to 460, compared with 473 in 2015. Approximately 93 per cent of these incidents had low to medium consequences in terms of impacts to the public, wildlife, and environment, and approximately 61 per cent of all incidents resulted in little (less than one cubic metre) to no substance released. High-consequence incidents accounted for seven per cent of all incidents in 2016. When classifying the consequence rating of an incident, the AER considers liquid volume as they have the potential to cause the greatest long-term social and environmental damage. Any incident that has a release volume lower than 0.1 cubic metres but above zero defaults to 0.1 cubic metres in the AER’s system. For example, if 0.06 cubic metres of product was released, the number would be rounded to 0.1 cubic metres.
In 2016, approximately 21 per cent of the total volume released resulted from two high-consequence incidents: Apache Canada Ltd. (600 cubic metres released) and Enerplus Corporation. (400 cubic metres released). In comparison, in 2015, approximately 63 per cent of the total volume released resulted from two high-consequence incidents: Nexen Energy ULC (5000 cubic metres released) and Murphy Oil Company Ltd. (2700 cubic metres released).
So, who are the poor performers? This sounds like an easy question, but it’s not.
The common standard for reporting on pipeline performance is as a ratio of incidents per 1000 kilometres of pipeline. This provides an understanding of overall performance and is an important indicator, but it doesn’t tell us the full story.
The fact is, many factors go into determining the performance of a pipeline operator, and the results will be different depending on the metric used.
For example, by counting the total number of incidents it is easy to identify those operators with high incident counts. However, this doesn’t take into account the total length of pipeline, the consequence of those incidents, or the volume of product released.
You could also look at the number of high-consequence incidents since they have the greatest impact. But when you look at that information, the ranking of operators is different. This alone doesn’t tell us the impact of those incidents or help us understand frequency.
Another way to sort the performance results is by the total volume of product released, which provides a different ranking. Again, this doesn’t tell us the whole story.
These are just a few ways performance could be ranked—there is no single solution or simple answer. That’s why it’s so important to look at more than one metric.
When it comes to improving performance, the AER considers everything. We look at all the data we have in order to understand which operators are performing well and which need improvement. We look at an operator’s compliance history, its incident ratio, the total number of incidents it has, and the consequence rating of those incidents. We also look at the location of its pipelines and the types of product it carries in its pipelines. Based on all these factors, we prioritize which operators we need to focus on to prevent pipeline incidents.
As our industry performance program evolves, we expect to add additional measures to indicate how each operator is performing.
Report data is available in Excel format and through Tableau, an interactive data visualization tool that allows users to filter and manipulate datasets.
Find out how we're improving performance
1 Information about how the AER determines the consequence of an incident can be found by viewing the pipeline performance report.