A key dimension of the current debate surrounding the proposed transcontinental oil pipelines focuses on environmental health and safety. Opponents of pipelines like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL argue that the risks of an oil spill, and the associated environmental consequences are too high, and provide sufficient cause for abandoning projects.  A case in point is a pipeline spill, which occurred just last Wednesday (July 16 , 2015) south of Fort McMurray, AB. Meanwhile, proponents of pipelines point to promises made by companies (like Enbridge and TransCanada) regarding state-of-the-art monitoring and response systems that will greatly reduce the risk of an oil spill.

There’s no reason to think that companies that develop pipelines are interested in neglecting their responsibilities toward the environment. Pipeline companies have responsibilities to their clients, and to their shareholders, and future accidents would cost them all dearly.  Likewise, in today’s climate, any pipeline company would be under close regulatory scrutiny regarding the operation of their respective projects. However, this doesn’t mean that  companies aren’t engaging in wishful thinking about the environmental and health risks associated with their proposed pipeline projects.

Consider the following: On July 6, 2013, an unattended train carrying crude oil ran away, derailed, and exploded killing 47 in in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Later that same day, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed on final approach at the San Francisco International Airport, killing three and critically injuring 12 others. Eighteen days later, a high-speed train derailed near Santiago de Compostela in Spain killing 79 people and injuring more than approximately 140 others.

The investigations into these three accidents pointed to human error, and specifically carelessness, as the primary cause in each case. The same conclusions about human error have been drawn in a number of other recent high-profile accidents, ranging from the grounding and partial sinking of the MS Costa Concordia cruise ship off the west coast of Italy in 2012, with 30 people confirmed dead, and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, resulting in the deaths of its seven member crew.

What’s particularly tragic about these accidents is that they all occurred in highly regulated tightly monitored industries where promises—and indeed track records—around safety are critically important indicators of performance: air travel, shipping, rail transport, and space exploration. It would be incorrect, not to mention irresponsible, to suggest that any of the companies involved—and NASA in the case of the Space Shuttle Columbia—wantedor deservedthese accidents. It would be equally incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that a pipeline company would want, or should deserve, accidents involving their projects.

But, the fact is, these accidents happened, and the question is why?

One of the more elegant explanations comes from the sociologist Diane Vaughan. When studying the loss of another Space Shuttle, the Challenger in 1986, she found that NASA engineers and decision makers had become so accustomed to undertaking aberrant behaviors—“cutting corners” —that these behaviors became part of the agency’s standard operating procedure; this in spite of the fact these behaviours were well outside NASA’s own rules about safety. Dr. Vaughan termed this phenomenon the “normalization of deviance”. She suggested, in a nutshell, that aberrant behaviors are allowed to become normalized by actors—and within institutions—because, most of the time, nothing bad happens as a result of them. That is, until something bad happens.

In science, a phenomenon is termed “robust” when it happens with regularity, and this is the case with the normalization of deviance. It happens almost everywhere. Employees steal a little from their employers, until they get caught. Students cheat a little on assignments and exams, until they get caught. And people in companies routinely cut corners on safety, until accidents happen. Indeed, the normalization of deviance has already worked its way into the business of oil pipelines.

Three years ago, on July 25, 2010, a segment of an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, spilling more than 3.3 million litres of heavy oil from Alberta into the Kalamazoo River. I lived and worked in Michigan at the time, and calling the spill a major environmental and social catastrophe would be a serious understatement. And, the consequences of the spill linger to this day.

Even though alarms sounded in Enbridge’s Edmonton control room at the time of the spill, it was 18 hours before the company halted the flow of oil, preventing more oil from spilling. In fact, at the time the alarms sounded, Enbridge employees attributed the alarms to an air bubble—not an uncommon occurrence—and actually increasedpressure in the line in an attempt to clear the “blockage”. Not taking the spill alarms seriously because they were attributed to a non-serious, business-as-usual event constitutes a normalization of deviance.

It’s no secret that oil pipelines such as Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, and a proposed west-to-east pipeline to ports in Quebec constitute a major component of the energy strategy just agreed to by Canada’s premiers. But, as we debate the pros and cons of these future pipelines, whether or not there will be an oil spill as a result of human error should not be viewed as an open question as both opponents and proponents suggest. That there will be a spill from any one of these new pipelines being discussed is a certainty. The only questions are, when and where will they happen, how big will they be, and what—if anything—can be done to stop or rectify them?

Time will tell.


This article first appeared in The Hill Times.