TransCanada Corp. won a national political boost Thursday for the proposed partial conversion of its natural gas Mainline to oil service from the Canadian Senate’s energy, environment and natural resources committee.

“Accident prevention is ingrained in nearly every aspect of the pipeline system,” concluded a report on a 10-month review of transportation of hazardous petroleum and chemical goods that included 18 public hearings and 11 visits to industrial operations in Canada and the United States.

In sharp contrast, the senators called for an independent, expert national inquiry into railway equipment and practices. The committee said need for improvement showed up in its work and then was highlighted by the lethal tank car wreck, explosion and fire July 6 in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, which caused at least 47 deaths, forced evacuation of 6,000 residents, triggered a criminal investigation and multiple lawsuits, and forced the Chicago-based train company into bankruptcy.

As a proportion of petroleum liquids traffic on Canadian pipelines, spills have become so rare that they are statistically almost too small to measure, the committee said.

At current delivery rates of 1.2 billion bbl of oil and natural gas liquids loaded into 71,000 kilometers (44,375 miles) of federally regulated long-distance transmission lines per year over the decade 2000-2011, 99.9996% reached their destinations without incident, the report said.

Of seven spills at widely dispersed locations in 2012, none happened to the buried pipes. All were at above-ground compressor, pump and meter stations. Since 2007, 93% of Canadian pipeline mishaps have caused either no leaks or just small spills of less than one cubic meter (6.3 bbl), the committee said.

The committee cited industry projections that Canadian production will grow by 50% to six million b/d as of 2030. But only two recommendations were made for minor additions to the pipeline safety net: mandatory audits of company equipment and procedures by the National Energy Board (NEB), plus creation of a national call-before-you-dig data bank and telephone line for activities liable to bump into buried oil and gas conduits.

As an added boost for industry, the senators also said there is no reason to fear plans for increased marine tanker loadings in current jumbo pipeline projects aimed at creating new export outlets on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Along with switching to oil one of six pipelines in the Mainline right-of-way from Alberta to Quebec and adding an extension to the New Brunswick shoreline, TransCanada’s C$12-billion Energy East project includes expanded export docks for an undisclosed portion of planned deliveries of 1.1 million b/d (see Daily GPI, Aug. 5).

Committee researchers had to pore through a quarter-century of maritime records to dredge up the last notable tanker spills anywhere near Canadian coastlines. In 1988, a barge dumped 1,000 tonnes (7,300 bbl) of oil into the Pacific offshore of southern British Columbia and 132,000 tonnes (963,600 bbl) gushed into the Atlantic from a damaged tanker 700 nautical miles (1,260 kilometers) out to sea from Nova Scotia.

In Canadian waters precautions such as mandatory double hulls, direction by expert pilots and tugboat escorts have reduced tanker accidents almost to zero since the start of offshore oil production on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in 1997. The federal government recently announced additional safety and environmental requirements, following outbreaks of popular fear and environmental group protests ignited by regulatory reviews of export pipeline projects.

As the official upper house of Parliament for “sober second thought” the Canadian Senate is appointed instead of elected and often derided by opposition parties with few or no members in its red chamber. But as in House of Commons, the ruling party holds the majority of seats and Senate committee reports are often influential or telegraph government intentions. The last major energy inquiry, held following the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, foreshadowed recent increases in federally required security deposits required for Canadian arctic and offshore gas and oil drilling.

The gas, oil and chemicals transportation review emphasized that the government does not take sides in delivery rivalry by identifying the safest method. “All forms of transportation will play a role in our energy future and all modes must operate in a manner that protects the safety of Canadians and the environment,” the Senate committee said.

But the report portrayed trains as straining to keep up with market conditions by handling rapid growth in industry traffic with old equipment and methods. Tank carloads traveling on Canadian railways have shot up to a forecast 140,000 this year from only 500 in 2009, the Senate committee learned.

Federal government records register 118 rail accidents with hazardous goods in 2012. Nine-tenths of the tank car mishaps were on sidings or in switch yards, at speeds of 16 kilometers an hour (10 miles per hour) or less.

Canada raised national requirements for strength and thickness of tank car walls, fittings and protective hardware in 2011. But the improved standards cover only equipment added since the change and the turnover of rolling stock is slow because tank cars last an average of 40 years, the Senate committee said.

In calling for a separate, expert and independent further inquiry into trains for energy and chemical commodities, the Senate committee predicted that change is coming down the track for safety rules, hardware and practices. “The Lac-Megantic tragedy could have the same impact on the rail industry as the 1989 Exxon Valdez [Alaskan] spill has had on marine oil transportation. Namely, it resulted in significant changes in tanker design and a major overhaul of Canada’s marine spill preparedness and response programs.”