Pipelines regulated by the federal government — which include some of the longest lines in the country — have experienced a swell in the number of safety-related incidents over the past decade, documents obtained by CBC News suggest.

In recent months, a spate of oil and gas spills both from train derailments and pipelines have raised questions about what mode of transport is the safest.

The pipeline industry has touted its record as it seeks support for numerous controversial projects across the continent, including TransCanada’s Keystone XL to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway to the B.C. coast.

However, according to figures from a National Energy Board (NEB) data set obtained under access-to-information by CBC, the rate of overall pipeline incidents has doubled since 2000.

By 2011, safety-related incidents — covering everything from unintentional fires to spills — rose from one to two for every 1,000 kilometres of federally-regulated pipeline. That reflects an increase from 45 total incidents in 2000 to 142 in 2011.

Pipeline watchers like Pembina Institute associate Nathan Lemphers suggest the rise may be a worrisome sign of aging infrastructure.

“The pipelines that are in the ground are getting older and in some cases there's more products flowing through them so you're going to see increasing incidents and increasing defects in those pipelines unless they're properly maintained,” Lemphers said.

The NEB documents give detailed information about 1,047 pipeline safety incidents from Jan. 1, 2000 until late 2012.

The federal regulator oversees any pipeline that crosses provincial or international borders, which includes about 90 companies that own about 71,000 kilometres of pipelines. The data does not include smaller pipelines monitored by provinces.

The National Energy Board attributes the rise in incidents to heightened awareness among companies about what they need to report.

“We’ve been out there talking with industry associations and the companies themselves to ensure that they are fully aware of what the reporting requirements are and I think that’s why we’re seeing an increase right now,” said NEB’s business leader for operations, Patrick Smythe.

Leaks, spills triple

Each company overseen by the NEB must report safety issues including the death or serious injury of a worker, fires, explosions, liquid product spills over 1,500 litres and every gas leak.

Among the other findings based on NEB’s pipeline database is that there’s been a three-fold increase in the rate of product releases — ranging from small leaks and spills to large  — that have been reported in the past decade.

hi-pipeline-oil-yellow-flag

B.C. saw the most reported incidents for a single province, followed by Alberta and Ontario (John Rieti/CBC)

More than four reportable releases happened for every 10,000 kilometres in 2000, or 18 incidents in total, according to NEB data. By 2011, that rate had risen to 13 per 10,000 kilometres, or 94 incidents.

Those numbers include any oil or natural gas releases companies are required by law to report, including ones that happened in facilities or small amounts leaked into water bodies. 

Carl Weimer, executive director of U.S. advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, says each small leaks may not  be significant on its own, but taken together they provide a better picture when looking at safety trends.

“It shows how really carefully they are taking care of the pipelines,” said Weimer.

British Columbia experienced the most pipeline safety incidents for a single province, with 279 recorded events from 2000 to 2012 in the data set. Alberta came in second with 244 incidents, followed by Ontario with 146.

The community with the highest number of incidents in its vicinity is the remote town of Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, which has seen 71 events.

NEB concerned about severe incidents

CBC News turned the NEB data set into a user-friendly map that allows Canadians to explore pipeline incidents using filters such as the nearest community, year, company, pipeline or substance spilled.

It provides an unprecedented bird’s eye view of safety issues plaguing pipelines over the past decade and also gives users the ability to drill down into the details of each report.

NEB’s Smythe says that the regulator has not seen an alarming increase in the “significant, serious or major incident over the last little while.”

Recent documents published by the NEB show that they have expressed some concern over rising numbers.

“Notwithstanding the safety record of NEB-regulated pipelines, the board has noticed an increased trend in the number and severity of incidents being reported by NEB-regulated companies in recent years," one 2012 report states. 

Another 2011 document citing the same concern also notes the need for NEB to "enhance data collection” in order to tackle that problem and other troubling trends in the industry.

It goes on to say that a reduction in the numbers ultimately “depends on actions taken by the industry.”

Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association, which represents major companies, says there’s an industry-wide commitment to “get to zero incidents.”

“We're driving that out very hard through our risk-based management approach at the industry level that involves a lot of best practices, integrity, management, technology and these indicators,” said Kenny.

“The Canadian pipeline industry is one of the very safest in the world second to none in terms of actual results,” said Kenny.

Pipelines have faced unparalleled attention in recent years as global demand fuels a production boom across the continent, resulting in a rise in pipeline proposals.

“Pipelines were very much out of sight out of mind until recently,” said Ian Goodman, a U.S. energy consultant who works with regulators and community groups across North America.

The pipeline debate is not generally “front-page news day after day … the way it now is. That’s a new development.”

If you have any pipeline-related stories, please email us at pipelines@cbc.ca.

With files from Joanne Levasseur and Margo McDiarmid