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The National Energy Board says strengthened rules will help prevent future pipeline accidents. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The National Energy Board says it has strengthened regulations for federally regulated oil and natural gas pipelines to make them safer for people and the environment.

The amended regulations that came into effect earlier this month require companies to do more to address safety, pipeline integrity, security, environmental protection and emergency management.

Board chairman Gaetan Caron said the new rules can help companies better manage risk and safe pipeline operations.

"These regulations are part of a commitment to continual improvement in terms of safety and outcomes," Caron said in a statement.

"The board believes that with proper management, pipeline incidents are preventable. It is on that critical foundation that we have developed a proactive approach that targets the prevention of incidents before they occur."

Improving accountability

Some of the changes are meant to make senior pipeline company executives more accountable by, for example, filing annual reports on pipeline projects that can be audited by the board.

Other changes include requiring companies to appoint "accountable officers" who are responsible for ensuring safety and environmental goals ripple down from top executives to frontline employees. Their names are to be sent to the board.

Paula Futoransky, director of regulatory approaches, said companies must also have policies that  encourage employees to report — without fear of reprisal — any hazards, environmental and workplace incidents or near misses.

"Any organization that has a really good safety culture, their employees know that if they feel something is unsafe or something is not happening that is going to protect the environment, they can stand up and say, 'I need to stop. I need to check risks here,"' she said.

Pipeline companies respond

Board officials said the rule changes have been in the works for years and were not driven by any recent pipeline spills or public concern over proposed pipelines such as Enbridge's $6 billion Northern Gateway project that would carry Alberta oilsands bitumen to the B.C. coast.

An official with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association said its member companies will comply with the new regulations, but he declined further comment.

The association's member companies, which include Enbridge Pipelines, Keystone Pipeline TransCanada and Kinder Morgan Canada, operate about 110,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. The association said the lines moved 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2011.

An official with Enbridge said the company is reviewing the changes. "We are still evaluating that in terms of what it means for our business," said spokesman Graham White in Calgary.

Nathan Lemphers of the Pembina Institute, an environmental policy think-tank, said the new regulations are a clear improvement that will force companies to better manage their pipelines.

The old rules lacked clarity and accountability around safety and environmental management, he said.

"It forces the companies to integrate stronger management practices across the organization, make sure they are consistent and make sure that the senior officials of the company are accountable to carrying out those management practices," Lemphers said from Ottawa.

"At a time right now when there is increasing scrutiny on an aging pipeline network it make sense that the NEB would step up their expectations for pipeline companies."

Safety forum to be held in Calgary

Improving safety and environmental protection in the oil and natural gas industry will be the theme of a forum the National Energy Board is planning to hold in Calgary on June 5-6. Speakers include the CEOs of Enbridge (TSX:ENB) and TransCanada (TSX:TRP), the president of Kinder Morgan and leaders of other pipeline companies.

"The safety forum is part of our wanting to continually communicate with companies to help them understand what our expectations are and to help promote them talking to each other, inspiring continual improvement, raising the bar amongst themselves," Futoransky said.