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Kenneth Taylor retired in 2012 after a 35-year career as an environmental-social planner in the natural gas pipeline industry. He lives in Calgary.
The recent tragic events in Lac-Mégantic, Que., have brought a well-deserved sharper focus to the public discourse on the risks of transporting and handling the fuels that power our everyday world. After several years in which pipeline transport of oil has been the fashionable target for those who are inclined to protest elements of our modern world, railways have now moved into the crosshairs. This gives us an opportunity to reconsider how our society assesses and manages the relative risks of transporting and handling energy.
Each form of the energy we rely on has inherent characteristics that result in risks we must manage for our everyday safety. After long periods of usage, society learns what these risks are and, considering the consequences, develops strict codes of safe use. For example, electricity has its dangers, but in its household power or battery forms, it works beside nearly every one of us virtually 24 hours a day.
We have created strict codes for the supply and distribution of electricity to power the lights, tools and appliances in our homes, offices and stores. And we expect our vehicle and cellphone batteries to perform for us daily in a safe manner.
Similarly, the majority of our homes and businesses are heated by natural gas. Though that energy source has its own inherent characteristics and risks, we have learned how to manage them to an acceptable level, so that we seldom have a care about the basement furnace that keeps our homes warm, or the machines that transform natural gas into the plastics or fertilizers that are so important to us.
And yet despite these convincing examples of how our society successfully manages energy-handling hazards, we find it easy to nod our heads in recent years when we encounter knee-jerk rants about pipelines or – now – railways.
In the 1990s, after several high-profile ruptures, the Canadian natural gas pipeline industry developed a new system for assessing the safety of its facilities, and with these improved tools reduced its system operations risks in the decades since.
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