As new pipelines criss-cross southwestern Manitoba and hundreds of new pumpjacks pop up every year, the number of oil spills is also on the rise.
Nearly 33,000 barrels of oil have been spilled in dribs and drabs in Manitoba over the last five years as the oilpatch boomed, and the province is on track for even more slicks this year. Last year there were 90 spills. Already this year there have been 86, totalling nearly 4,000 barrels.
But, most spills are relatively small -- a few hundred barrels -- and spills are not outpacing production. Provincial inspectors with Manitoba Innovation Energy and Mines say most spills are concentrated around equipment sites, and cleanup is immediate and complete. Spills are typically caused by mechanical problems such as tanks that overflow into secondary containment units, a rubber pipe seal that has failed or corrosion in a flow line. There have been some significant spills on farmland and into sloughs, since flow lines and other major pipelines often cross agricultural land.
Concerns about pipeline integrity have led major players in southwestern Manitoba's oil industry to replace aging pipelines. Penn West Exploration, for example, plans to replace a 29-year-old crude-oil pipeline that runs from the Waskada field to nearby Cromer with a slightly higher-capacity pipeline along the same route -- and bury a liquid natural gas pipeline in the same trench.
It's one of hundreds of kilometres of pipeline built or proposed for the area since 2010.
While the province has approved the project, some landowners along the route are concerned about the possibility of spills into the Oak Lake Aquifer, which provides drinking water to Melita and other southwestern Manitoba towns.
"It's unbelievable the minister granted a construction licence to that project," said Don Greig, a Melita-area farmer who is in the midst of negotiating an access agreement with Penn West.
"Water and water-quality issues should be important things to consider. I hope there's no spill, but there is a solution: Don't put it there."
Regional officials, however, are not concerned the new pipeline poses a threat. Melita Mayor Bob Walker and Arthur-Virden MLA Larry Maguire say they are satisfied with Penn West's plans for its new pipeline.
"We've seen what happens when you move oil by train," said Walker, referring to the disaster in Lac-M©gantic, Que., in July, when oil cars bearing North Dakota crude exploded, killing dozens and obliterating entire blocks of the town.
Major oil companies have been largely unwilling to speak to the Free Press about oil spills or any other issue related to Manitoba's oil development.
The most recent call to Tundra Oil & Gas Ltd., a company owned by Winnipeg's Richardson family, was not returned. Tundra staff repeatedly suggested speaking to the province even though Tundra is the biggest operator in Manitoba's oilpatch and was involved in the two largest oil spills last year, as well as one earlier this year that spilled several hundred barrels.
Lorne Barsness, a senior provincial government petroleum inspector based in Waskada, said dealing with spills is the highest priority of the petroleum branch's inspectors. There is a 24-hour reporting line, and inspectors drop what they are doing and head to a spill site when one is reported, he said.
Oil companies must report spills within 12 hours.
Each spill must be cleaned up by the company, the oil recovered and damaged soil remediated.
"No oil company wants a spill," said Keith Lowdon, director of the petroleum branch's mineral resources division, "It costs them, and we're on their backs."
A company must be found to be derelict to incur a fine, and so far no Manitoba oil operation has been fined for a spill.