An argument for new pipelines – by Neil Reynolds (Globe and Mail – November 21, 2011)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

You might think that humans have built enough oil and gas pipelines by now to get it right. And, fact is, they have. Oil and gas provide 60 per cent of the world’s primary fuel: a million tonnes of oil every hour, a quarter of a trillion cubic metres of gas every hour.

Almost all of it moves, at one time or other, in pipelines – the safest way, by far, to move it. And this is not inherently surprising. Pipelines are usually buried a metre underground. We’re not talking deep-sea drilling here.

But Canadian-made and Canadian-managed pipelines are in a class by themselves, either the safest in the world or indistinguishable from it. Canadian pipeline companies operate 100,000 kilometres of pipeline. The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association puts the average annual loss of liquid fuels from these pipelines at two litres for every million litres moved. The safety performance of these companies, in other words, can be expressed as 99.999 per cent.

Accidents happen, of course, mostly as a result from corrosion in old pipelines. But old pipeline infrastructure isn’t an argument against pipelines. It’s an argument for new pipelines. Keystone XL was a shovel-ready jobs program that, alas, didn’t interest Barack Obama. Perhaps things will change when the President’s “Department of Jobs” gets going.

The Chinese invented pipeline technology in 400 BC when they first used bamboo stalks to move natural gas from the countryside to Beijing. The U.S. caught up in the 1840s, piping gas from Pennsylvania to light street lamps in New York City (at one-third the cost). The U.S. now has a million kilometres of oil and gas pipelines – in feeder lines and transmission lines that crisscross in complex underground patterns across the country.

Canada’s contribution to pipeline technology is pure saga, right up there with transcontinental railways. Incorporated as Interprovincial Pipe Line in 1949, Enbridge Inc. built the first big Canadian oil pipeline (from Alberta to Lake Superior) under daunting conditions in 1950. It took 1,500 men and 150 days. Enbridge later extended it to Sarnia, ending its need for Great Lakes oil freighters. With more than 15,000 kilometres of pipeline, Enbridge now operates the world’s longest oil and gas transportation system, delivering two million barrels of oil a day and enough natural gas to fuel two million customers.

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