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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Only disaster here is of the PR type

Posted: 01/29/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 01/29/2014 7:05 AM | Updates

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THE Transportation Safety Board of Canada 
The exposed pipeline at Otterburne is seen after Saturday's explosion, which cut off the flow of natural gas to thousands of residents.

TSB CANADA Enlarge Image

THE Transportation Safety Board of Canada The exposed pipeline at Otterburne is seen after Saturday's explosion, which cut off the flow of natural gas to thousands of residents.

As far as pipeline accidents go, Saturday's burn in Otterburne has left the Red River Valley relatively unscathed.

There's a 30-metre-wide scar in the ground where a TransCanada Pipelines valve site used to be. There was a drop in New Bothwell cheese production and other disruptions in day-to-day business in towns and villages located along a 50-kilometre stretch of Highway 59.

There were days of shivering cold for thousands of people forced to live without natural gas during one of the coldest Manitoba winters in recent memory.

The Otterburne explosion, the first major natural gas pipeline accident in this province in nearly 12 years, can safely be described as a major inconvenience for residents of Ritchot, Taché, De Salaberry and other southeastern municipalities.

To put it bluntly, nobody died. The fireball, as spectacular as it was, cannot be called a disaster for the Red River Valley. But it may yet prove to be disastrous for the pipeline operator's parent company, TransCanada.

The Calgary-based energy giant, one of the biggest oil and gas providers on the continent, is in the midst of trying to convince Americans it's a great idea to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil from the Alberta oilpatch to refineries in Texas.

TransCanada is also trying to convince Canadians it's a great idea to convert part of its east-west natural gas main line into the Energy East oil pipeline.

TransCanada is attempting this PR effort in the midst of unprecedented public awareness about the transmission of oil and gas, thanks to accidents far more serious than the explosion at Otterburne.

Last July's disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Que., where a runaway oil train killed 47 people, has Ottawa facing pressure to tighten up regulations governing the rail transport of Bakken crude, which is believed to be more flammable than oil from elsewhere.

Subsequent oil-train derailments and fires in New Brunswick and North Dakota have only heightened sensitivities about the transportation of oil, a substance everybody consumes but nobody wants to see carried through their own backyard.

If consumers were entirely logical creatures, the relative danger inherent in transporting oil by train would increase support for oil pipelines. But people don't form opinions in a vacuum.

You can't blame a rural American landowner for being uneasy about the construction of an oil pipeline in his or her backyard. You also can't blame Canadians for being unenthusiastic about the prospect of oil pipes replacing gas pipes near their communities.

As the Otterburne fireball demonstrated on Saturday, the environmental aftermath of a natural gas pipeline rupture is limited to the short-term combustion of methane and a scar on the landscape afterward. Similar craters were created by TransCanada gas pipeline explosions outside Brookdale, Man., in 2002, on the bottom of the La Salle River near St. Norbert in 1996 and near Rapid City, Man., in 1995.

But when oil pipelines rupture, the spills can take days to subside and weeks, even months to clean up.

Natural gas winds up in the atmosphere, where it merely adds to the considerable load of greenhouse gases slowly messing up worldwide climatic patterns. Oil winds up in our soil and watersheds, where the damage is far more visible and more difficult to remediate.

What this means is a gas explosion does two very different things, in terms of public relations, neither of them great for TransCanada.

On one hand, it serves as a reminder that any mode of oil and gas transportation poses a potential danger. On the other, it reminds people living along natural gas pipelines they're probably better off than people living alongside oil pipelines.

The challenge for a company such as TransCanada is to convince Canadians and Americans alike it will spare no expense in ensuring the safety of any new oil pipeline. Selling consumers on the necessity of moving the oil -- either to benefit the North American economy or to reduce reliance on Middle Eastern oil -- simply will not work when people are freaked out about their safety.

In theory, consumers would pay more for domestic oil if they knew the money would be reinvested in safety and security measures. But the same consumers would also pay for alternative energy sources if they knew they had no choice but to spend more money anyway.

Getting oil off trains is a laudable goal. But that goal isn't realistic if nobody is willing to accept new pipelines.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2014 A3

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Updated on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 7:05 AM CST: Replaces photo

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