Northern Gateway could have the chance to prove its bark is as good as its bite when it comes to oil spill response.
One of the potential challenges the pipeline company could face in its Alberta-to-Kitimat route is locating oil buried under piles of snow, in the event of a winter spill,. During testimony Friday at National Energy Board (NEB) hearings into the $6.5 billion plan, Northern Gateway expert Elliott Taylor spoke about dogs in Norway trained to sniff out buried oil to aid in recovery efforts.
"Norway has dogs to sniff for oil, they're very effective, surprisingly," Taylor said.
Although there are no formal plans to have dog teams available if a spill were to occur along the proposed Northern Gateway route, Enbridge vice-president of western access Janet Holder left open the possibility the company could employ canines. Since the company plans to staff pumping stations 24 hours a day, Holder said there are natural places to house the trained canines.
"What a great place for a dog," she said.
Just how often dogs or another oil recovery tool would have to be deployed was at issue Friday at the hearings as a coalition of environmental groups questioned Northern Gateway witnesses on company's historic spill rate in its North American pipeline network.
Much has been made of the devastating 2010 spill of diluted bitumen in Michigan, but Holder said figures provided by the company Friday suggest it beats industry standards when it comes to both the frequency of spills and the amount of oil released annually.
According to NEB figures provided for 2011, Enbridge had 0.5 leaks per 1,000 kilometre of Canadian pipeline, compared with 7.43 leaks per 1,000 km for the rest of the Canadian industry. In terms of volume, Enbridge had averaged 306 barrels of liquid released per 1,000 km of pipe per year from 2002-09. The industry average for the same metric is 355.
Figures Enbridge provided from the United States show a similar trend - it has a lower spill rate than other pipeline companies.
The company also said it's committed to continual improvement to reduce those figures over time and said with new technology it's easier to detect problem areas sooner.
Barry Robinson, representing ForestEthics Advocacy, Living Oceans Society and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, tried to get the company to live up to its claim that it will be able to reduce spill amounts and frequency. He asked if Northern Gateway would promise to halt construction of Northern Gateway if more spills occur on its other pipelines.
Enbridge vice-president for pipeline integrity Walter Kresic replied that wouldn't be possible and pointed out the spill rates the company cited were simply there to help it learn from each incident.
"The metric is used for a specific purpose to identify where improvements are required," he said during testimony.
Afterwards Holder said it would be unfair for Northern Gateway to commit to shutting down its pipeline if other lines in the Enbridge network had higher than normal spill rates because each pipe uses different technology. She also said it could be possible that a third party could rupture an Enbridge pipe and under Robinson's scenario that would mean Northern Gateway would have to shut down, too.
In an interview after his questioning, Robinson said he was surprised the company wouldn't put a firm commitment behind its goal to reduce spills.
"They're all engineers, they all understand metrics," he said. "If you're going to set a goal [to reduce spills], why not commit to a metric?"
Robinson didn't mince words with his final question of the witness panel, asking if Northern Gateway could guarantee the pipeline wouldn't leak at some point during its lifespan.
"We can't guarantee that," Kresic said. "But we also know that it's not inevitable."
The hearings are now adjourned until Oct. 29 at the Ramada. The Fort St. James sustainability group will be the first to ask questions, followed by Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen.