York professor tracks the long history of oil pipeline spills in Canada

Between 1961 and 1996, there were 560 oil spills from pipelines regulated by the Canadian government, an average of 16 oil spills each year. These are some of the findings of the first comprehensive historical analysis of oil pipeline spills in Canada conducted by York University history Professor Sean Kheraj, with the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. His research was published in Canadian Historical Review and is available as an open access article.

Sean Kheraj

“Leaks and spills have been endemic on oil pipelines in Canada since the mid-twentieth century,” said Kheraj. National Energy Board incident reports dating back to 1961 reveal the regular occurrence of oil spills on Canada’s system of more than 70,000 kilometres of federally regulated pipelines.

The greatest number of spills in one year occurred in 1973 (27 spills) and 1993 (26 spills). The largest spill reported to the government occurred near Swan Lake, Manitoba in October 1967 when more than 5.2 million litres of crude oil spilled into the surrounding environment.

According to Kheraj’s research, the causes of such spills have been variable, conforming to no obvious pattern over time. Instead, oil pipeline spills have occurred most often in an unpredictable fashion, posing great challenges for policy development. However, for the first time, a comprehensive statistical analysis of such incidents now exists, and clearly shows that pipelines continue to pose environmental risks.

“These spills have also represented a proportionally small fraction of the total oil delivered on Canada’s long-distance pipelines,” Kheraj said, “but, in absolute terms, this has meant the uncontrolled release of many millions of litres of oil into the environment.”

Kheraj’s research is part of a broader Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project on the history of oil pipeline development in Canada. For more information, visit https://niche-canada.org/silentrivers.

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