UPDATE 2-Alberta to probe pipelines as spill furor grows
* Third-party reviewer to work with energy regulator
* Integrity, water crossings, spill response probed
* Study to take months
By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta, July 20 (Reuters) - Alberta, the largest source of U.S. oil imports, plans to review the safety of its massive pipeline network after a number of high-profile oil spills prompted calls for action, Ken Hughes, the Canadian province's energy minister, said on Friday.
Following consultations with the oil and pipeline industries, Hughes said he had directed the provincial energy regulator to retain an independent third party to review how pipeline integrity is managed, how safe water crossings are and what plans are in place for responding to spills.
Results of the study are expected in the coming months, he said. He said he was not in a position yet to name the third-party reviewer.
The initiative could lead to more-stringent regulatory oversight and improved enforcement, he said.
"Let me be clear -- if improvements are required, I will make sure that they happen. I will also make this report public," Hughes told reporters.
Demands for a review among landowners, environmentalists and aboriginal groups have crescendoed after pipelines in Alberta owned by Enbridge Inc and Plains All American ruptured and spilled crude into lands and rivers in separate incidents.
Then last week, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board made headlines across Alberta and the rest of Canada when it sharply criticized Calgary-based Enbridge for breakdowns in safety measures that led to a damaging 2010 pipeline rupture and oil spill in Michigan.
The issue of pipeline safety comes at a critical time for Canada's energy industry, which accounts for about a third of the Alberta government's revenue. The sector is seeking approval for new multibillion-dollar pipelines to ship oil sands-derived crude to lucrative new markets on the U.S. Gulf Coast and to Asia via the Pacific Coast.
Hughes stressed that the number of pipeline incidents in Alberta has fallen steadily to 641 in 2011 from 885 in 2007, pointing out that all mishaps on the 400,000 km (250,000 miles) of pipe must be reported to the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the regulator.
He said he did not consult with environmental or landowner groups in the lead-up to announcing the study.
"The review will be undertaken by people who are intimately knowledgeable about a very technical issue, and we're taking the best advice possible to step up to this," he said.
"I have no problem hearing from environmental groups at all. We're all part of this ... the goal here is to assure Albertans that we're doing this, that we conduct business in a way that is the best possible standard."
An environmental representative lauded the government's decision to probe pipelines following weeks of growing demands, but said the regulator should not be in charge in what amounts to investigating itself in areas of oversight and enforcement.
"I'm not confident that we're going to see the kinds of results that are going to put more faith in this pipeline infrastructure here," said Chelsea Flook, Sierra Club's prairie director.
"The calls for this kind of review are coming from all over the place, about community safety, about our drinking water. It's also about security for future pipeline projects. We need to see that these agencies and these companies can be held accountable."
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