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Pipeline safety in the spotlight in aftermath of Manitoba explosion

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CALGARY - A natural gas pipeline explosion south of Winnipeg came at a bad time for not only the thousands unable to heat their homes during a frigid Prairie winter, but for a company that has been working to assure the public its proposed new oil pipelines will be safe.

TransCanada (TSX:TRP) has spent months meeting with communities along the route of its proposed Energy East pipeline, which would rework part of its cross-Canada natural gas mainline to carry oil from west to east. It expects to file a regulatory application this summer.

Meanwhile, TransCanada is also anxiously awaiting a decision from President Barack Obama on whether its controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect Alberta crude to Texas refineries, can go ahead.

"The company's kind of at a point where they're making a pitch for a brand new project. They're trying to sell people on how safe it is and how efficient it is," said Warren Mabee, director of Queen's University's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy.

"And here's an explosion right at a time when they want to be showing that they can operate things really safely and really effectively."

The RCMP says the explosion at a valve site near St. Pierre-Jolys, Man., was not suspicious.

Company officials said it was too soon to pinpoint a cause but that they hope to have natural gas service restored to all of the 4,000 people affected by midday Tuesday.

The pipeline involved in the blast early Saturday carries natural gas, posing different risks than oil pipelines like Energy East and Keystone XL would. Explosions are less of a concern with oil pipelines, but the environmental impacts from a possible crude spill would be more severe.

The pipe that would be converted for Energy East was not affected by the explosion, though it's in the same general region.

Environmental Defence's Adam Scott, who has been campaigning against Energy East, said he has concerns with TransCanada's safety record.

"I don't know why communities or provinces would trust this company to be safe," he said.

"This just reminds Canadians that this infrastructure is risky, inherently, and they need to be thinking about whether or not they actually want to be building more of this kind of infrastructure."

U.S. opponents to Keystone XL are paying attention, too. NextGen Climate Group — led by U.S. billionaire Tom Steyer, a vocal Keystone XL critic — made mention of the Manitoba explosion in a news release announcing a new anti-pipeline ad that will coincide with Obama's state of the union address on Tuesday.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said he believes the public will wait to see what comes out of investigations into the blast before rushing to judgement about other projects.

"It's important to let the experts do independent investigations, let the (National Energy Board) and the Transportation Safety Board complete their investigations on this so we know what happened," he said.

TransCanada also knows its handling of the Manitoba incident is being watched closely, Howard added.

"Recognizing that there are times when incidents happen, how does the company respond and how capable are they in dealing with it?" he said.

"That's something that the public measures, that the government and others measure."

Mabee said if TransCanada wants to earn the public's trust, it must be transparent about what caused the explosion and what it is doing to ensure it doesn't happen again.

An incident like that isn't "really far outside the normal range" of what might happen on such a huge natural gas pipeline system during its lifespan, but public scrutiny has never been greater.

"There's risks associated with any energy infrastructure that we choose to build and to use. What's really interesting, I think, about our society today is that we're becoming far less tolerant of those risks and really we're demanding more of the companies than we've ever demanded before," said Mabee, noting that turning off the taps to energy simply isn't an option.

"So the real test is how does the company respond and how are they going to work to reduce risk and ultimately how much is that going to cost?"

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