After a string of modest but attention-getting spills over the past 18 months, the government in the home base of the Canadian oil and gas industry has launched a review of pipeline safety standards.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said the inquiry will include an independent expert or specialty firm as well as the province's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). No deadline was set for completing the review of regulations and inspections by the ERCB and Alberta's Department of the Environment.

The provincial authorities police nearly 400,000 kilometers (250,000 miles) of pipelines. They come in all sizes and lengths from jumbo mainlines down to thin, short field legs between wells and processing sites. The majority carry natural gas, but liquid byproducts and multiple oil grades from bitumen to refined products account for about one-third of the network.

The energy minister said the inquiry will have a mandate to review industry best practices as well as government regulations around the world, in order to recommend any new Alberta standards. Hughes observed that the annual number of incidents on the pipeline web -- from accidental contacts by farmers and construction crews that do not cause leaks to spills resulting from system flaws -- has steadily declined from 885 in 2007 to 641 in 2011.

But as elsewhere across the United States and Canada, pipeline safety has surfaced as a touchy public issue in Alberta. The inquiry follows the emergence of a critical alliance of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Council of Canadians and the Alberta Surface Rights Group.

The coalition has set up a toll-free telephone tip line for anonymous pipeline complaints. The team brings together environmentalists and rural landowners who have mounted vehement defenses of property rights and supported the right-wing Wildrose opposition party in a spring provincial election.

Pipeline protests have been fanned by embarrassing Alberta spills over the past 18 months: up to 28,000 bbl near the northwestern aboriginal community of Little Buffalo, 3,000 bbl about a one-hour drive northwest of Calgary, and 1,500 bbl in the northeastern heavy oil and bitumen production region.

Also as elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada, spills are instantly translated into the smaller units of measurement for retail fuel products. In Canada the calculations generate very high numbers because the fossil fuels are sold in liters -- which are 159 per barrel (4.54 per Canadian gallon, 3.8 per U.S. gallon).

The recent Alberta record also includes a dramatic reminder that risks of accidents and spills are not confined to pipelines. In 2005 a railway derailment of 43 tank cars dumped 7,000 bbl (1.1 million liters) of petroleum liquids into Wabamun Lake, a popular cottage community on the western fringe of the provincial capital of Edmonton.

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