NEB spill map takes a step toward pipeline transparency

Canada's pipeline regulator took a "big step forward" on a promise to be more transparent with the release of a map of spills and other incidents. But gaps in the data still exist.

Canada still lags behind U.S. in making complete spill data public

The NEB says the interactive map of pipeline incidents is part of its effort to be more transparent with the public. (Courtesy of NEB)

Canada's pipeline regulator took a "big step forward" on a promise to be more transparent with the release of a map of spills and other incidents. But gaps in the data still exist.

On Monday, the National Energy Board launched the interactive pipeline incident map to showcase 692 spills, fires, injuries and other events over the past eight years.

The incident map comes a year and a half after CBC News mapped the data — using data obtained under the Access to Information Act that contained numerous blank fields — and nearly two years after a Senate report called for the NEB to create such a tool for Canadians.

"The NEB developed the map because Canadians deserve to have access to information about incidents where they live and work," said NEB spokesman Darin Barter. "It reflects the NEB's new direction, and a commitment to openness and transparency."

Nathan Lemphers, a former senior policy analyst with the Alberta-based Pembina Institute and a specialist in pipeline safety, commended the national regulator for creating the tool. 

"It's very encouraging to see that the National Energy Board is wanting to disclose this information in a format that's easily accessible by the public," said Lemphers. "That's a big step forward."

"But there's still more we can do when it comes to quality of the data and how accessible it is," he said.

For example, Lemphers noted that a number of incidents lack details on the type of substance or volume leaked, some figures in the map don't reflect previously published data and the descriptions of the terminology used are still mired in jargon.

The map is also missing a description of what happened in each incident — something the regulator does collect and can be "pretty important for understanding context," said Lemphers.

The Calgary-based NEB says some data is missing in the map because it won't include any information that they haven't investigated and verified.

Canada still lags behind U.S.

A U.S. pipeline transparency advocacy group also applauded the Canadian effort to be more transparent with the public.

But, Carl Weimer, executive director of the Washington State-based Pipeline Safety Trust, said "the NEB still lags well behind the federal regulator in the United States that makes easily available a good deal more information about individual incidents."

In 2012, the pipeline regulator got an infusion of money to improve safety and security, but that funding is soon coming to an end. (John Rieti/CBC)

South of the border, citizens have access to such details as the cause of the incident, information on property damage, the age of the component that failed, pressure the pipeline was operating at and other information that "help tell the full story of the failure," said Weimer.'

The NEB said it does plan to refine its map based on feedback. "If we can improve the system or increase the amount of data, we will do so," said Barter. Also, new incident data will be uploaded on a quarterly basis, with the next round slated for July.

However, the board is also planning a 15 per cent cutback of its workforce in the next two years as a temporary pool of money dedicated in 2012 to safety oversight runs out, according to a report released earlier this month.

Those cuts come despite increased public scrutiny of pipeline safety and a rise in large projects set to get underway.

"If we want the data to be reliable, we need people who can give it a critical eye on behalf of our public regulator," said Lemphers. 

The federal regulator oversees 73,000 kilometres of pipeline that cross international and provincial borders and are operated by more than 100 companies. Together, these companies ship more than $160 billion worth of crude oil, petroleum products, natural gas and natural gas liquids through these federally regulated conduits.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, which represents some of the country's largest operators of both federally and provincially regulated pipelines, says NEB's mapping effort "responds to the public's call for greater transparency," according to vice-president of external relations Philippe Reicher.

The industry group says it, too, plans to heed that call — with a similar tool to showcase its own members' data.