Tracking Canada’s History of Oil Pipeline Spills


Crowds gather to watch cranes joining two ends of an oil pipeline before the official ceremony commemorating the joining of the pipeline of an oil tanker terminal, Portland, Maine, with refineries in Montreal, Quebec, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, WRM 1054.

By Sean Kheraj

Last week, CBC News published a series of articles about energy pipeline safety on Canada’s federally-regulated system of oil and gas pipelines, revealing that between 2000 and 2011 Canada suffered 1,047 separate pipeline incidents. Its findings confirm my own earlier research on the history of oil pipeline spills on the network of interprovincial and international oil pipelines that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Energy Board.

Under an access-to-information request, CBC reporters obtained a data set of pipeline incidents covering a period from 2000 to 2011. It showed that the number of incidents swelled from 45 in 2000 to 142 in 2011. This roughly corresponds with what I found for the period from 2000-2009.

These new reports demonstrate the great difficulty and challenge of documenting the history of oil pipeline spills in Canada. Upon receiving a CD with 405 pages of incident reports, CBC reporters quickly realized that they needed to recompile this data to make it machine-readable for analysis. Furthermore, the data sets were inconsistent and, in some instances, incomplete. For the most part, the information on pipeline incidents on the federally-regulated system is provided by the pipeline operators and not by NEB staff. As such, the information arrives in an unpredictable format from incident to incident. This left CBC with no choice but to sift through all of the 1,047 incidents and fill in the blanks with other NEB documents and reports from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (the regulator responsible for reporting on major pipeline incidents).

CBC went a step further by making its own full data set searchable on an interactive map and available for download as raw data. This helps to address what it found to be a great difference between US and Canadian pipeline regulators. CBC found that US regulators provided more data and information regarding pipeline incidents and oil pipeline spills in an accessible manner than the NEB in Canada.

Many of the roadblocks and challenges CBC reporters faced during this investigation have similarly plagued my own research on the history of oil pipeline spills in Canada. I am seeking data on pipeline incidents from the mid-twentieth century to the present and as I push further back into the record, I have found that inconsistent record-keeping on pipeline incidents and problems of self-reporting have been common throughout the history of the NEB. Also, almost all of the archival records of the NEB and Transportation Safety Board (and its predecessor agencies) are held under restricted access by Library and Archives Canada. I have begun the long process of seeking access-to-information approval to look into these often poorly indexed records. I have yet to find a single collection of reports on pipeline incidents on the NEB system (most likely because no such collection exists).

Courtesy of the incredibly helpful and talented staff at the NEB library in Calgary, I have acquired the annual reports of the NEB from 1959 to 1987. Thus far, these reports have shed some light on this history, but like twenty-first century NEB records, the data is spotty and self-reported.

For the most part, the earliest annual reports rarely included data on pipeline failures and would only occasionally make reference to particular incidents, offering very few details. Even though the NEB was ostensibly responsible for regulating pipeline safety, its annual reporting tended to focus mainly on documenting approvals of new construction, accounting for financial expenses, and charting progress toward achieving federal energy policy goals for production, consumption, and export of oil, gas, and hydro-electricity.

The first time the NEB made reference to pipeline failures in its annual report was in 1962 when the board reported the following incidents from the previous year:

In July, the Board conducted an inquiry at North Bay into the causes of and the circumstances surrounding a rupture in the pipe line of Trans-Canada Lines Limited…

…Two pipe line failures on the system of Trans-Canada Pipe Lines Limited were investigated. As a result, approximately 22 miles of pipe line were retested in the North Bay and Gravenhurst areas. In these investigations, the Board and its staff had the close and effective co-operation of officers and staff of the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, for which the Board wishes to express its appreciation. [1]

The board continued later to outline the need for further studies of pipeline manufacturing to ensure safety:

As a result of the investigations into pipe line failures previously referred to, a more extensive study of pipe line steels and pipe fabrication procedures was initiated in cooperation with the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys. [2]

In 1963, the board acknowledged its responsibility for pipeline safety and reported that “during the year the Board staff conducted field inspections relating to pressure testing of pipe lines, gas compressor station facilities, and pipe failures.” [3] This indicated, of course, that pipeline failures continued to be a problem, but it offered no specific accounting for the number, type, locations, and frequency of such failures. Nevertheless, the board continued to study the issue, participating in efforts to establish a code for the design, construction, and operation of oil and gas pipelines. It also consulted with the Central Housing and Mortgage Corporation “concerning the safety aspects of locating housing developments in proximity to pipe lines.” [4]

It was not until 1966 that the NEB included a separate section in its annual reports to document “Pipe Line Leaks, Breaks, and Malfunctions.” From January 1 to December 31, 1965, federally-regulated pipelines suffered a total of 76 incidents. Defects along the longitudinal seam of pipelines caused 36 “small leaks” while corrosion caused another nine. Welding problems and other manufacturing defects, equipment failures, and human error accounted for the remaining failures for 1965. Finally, one incident remained a mystery because the “presence of water and ice is preventing investigation until Spring break-up.” [5]


The first account of total reported pipeline failures on federally-regulated system, 1965.

These annual reports provide a good starting point for digging up data on oil pipeline spills in Canada, but there is much more work to be done. As with the CBC investigation, I will need to dig deeper into the NEB archive and the records of the Transportation Safety Board, Canadian Transport Commission, and Board of Transport Commissioners to find specific reporting information on the many thousands of pipeline incidents that have occurred since the founding of the NEB in 1959. I will also need to supplement these records with newspaper accounts of some of the more catastrophic incidents that captured public attention in order to fully understand Canada’s complicated history with oil pipelines.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. He blogs at

[1] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1962), 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1963), 4.

[4] Ibid, 7.

[5] National Energy Board. National Energy Board Report (Ottawa: 1966), 6.

10 thoughts on “Tracking Canada’s History of Oil Pipeline Spills

  1. Art:

    I do now. I recently acquired a database covering nearly all pipeline incidents reported to the NEB between the 1950s and 1990s. I’m in the midst of getting that data processed. Once it is ready, I will post the data here.

  2. Wow. I would highly recommend that anyone who has questions regarding NEB or spills do their own homework. NEB posts on their web site all of the incidents for public information. It would also help to understand at least a little about incident reporting requirements, regulatory requirements, incidents in general just to start – in other words, who ever is disciphering the information needs to have a good understanding of the subject.

  3. great work
    iwould like to know how the cleanup and if it was bad and is this the same
    stuff they want to ship in keystone

  4. Joe:

    I’m still working on the history of clean-up efforts so I don’t have anything to report now. I can, however, tell you that on the interprovincial and international pipelines, operators did not ship much bitumen or heavy crude oil until the late 1980s and early 1990s.

  5. Tracy:

    Yes, having an understanding of reporting requirements is important for interpreting and analyzing such data. I’m in the midst of that work. Please see my subsequent articles on this topic elsewhere on this site.

    I’ve been doing some homework and found that spill data is not actually published with much clarity on the NEB site, certainly not for the regulator’s early history. In fact, we only recently uncovered a detailed incident data base last year.

    Published annual reports and other records from NEB don’t provide much information prior to the 1990s and the data that is included are often general and lack details about locations, volume, product type, and causes. If such data was easily accessible, CBC wouldn’t have had to go thorough such a time-consuming access to information request process with the NEB (as I describe above in this article. You will probably notice it when you re-read this article carefully a second time). Finally, the NEB archive at Library and Archives Canada is closed. That is to say, it is not open to the public. I am still in the process of trying to gain access to those records through access to information. Stay tuned!

  6. Sean,

    I appreciate the response to my comment and the intention to inform the public. However, I’ve worked in the oilfield for 15 years, including pipeline construction and elements of the keystone. I believe the more informative and enlightening approach (not saying at all that you’re trying to lead anyone down the garden path), would be to actually spend some time first hand, on a pipeline for example. There is SO much misinformation out there that people take as gospel. It’s difficult to compare records from 15+ years ago when as you’ve identified, (computer) records and data were not as prominent, detailed and certainly not as internet accessible as they are now. Having said that, anyone involved in environmental reclamation can tell you, you cannot hide it. Going back through what ever is readily available data from the 90s (infancy stage of the computer generation) is not necessarily going to give you solid insight as to what is going to happen in the future. Understanding what is in place to prevent potential environmental concerns from the planning stages (well before construction or drilling) to long after the beginning of production as well as contingency plans (ERPs as an example) should there be failures – then you will start to understand what risks and mitgation controls actually exist.

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