Canadian oil companies have to be on their toes now more than ever.
There's been an uptick in whistleblower reports this year to the National Energy Board (NEB), the agency that oversees all oil and gas pipeline companies operating in Canada.
Increasingly, employees inside these companies are tipping off the NEB about violations at pipeline and other energy facilities that the companies aren't reporting themselves, according to NEB spokesperson Darin Barter.
The upswing prompted the NEB to put out a tender for an expert to train staff in how to handle the reports. And they expect to see even more whistleblowers come forward in the future.
"It would be speculative at this point, but I think there's just generally more increased awareness of pipeline operations," Barter said when asked about what could be driving the numbers. "I mean, we've seen over the last several years, an increase in concerns over pipelines — safety, environmental impacts — and I think that's being reflected in the calls that we're receiving."
"We're anticipating that we're going to see more whistleblower activity going forward, due to that awareness."
Though there has been an increase, it's still a small number of whistleblowers. There have been nine reports so far this year, and there were a total of eight last year. That's a lot compared to zero reports in 2013, and six reports in 2012.
The NEB did not have numbers prior to 2012 since that's the year they started tracking whistleblower reports.
The NEB would not disclose which companies were the targets of whistleblower tips. But in 2012, former TransCanada engineer Evan Vokes went public with concerns about the company's pipeline safety, after he said he repeatedly raised those concerns with management.
"I wrote a series of emails to a series of project managers saying, 'We can't do this practice, we can't do this practice, we can't do this practice,'" Vokes told CBC at the time. "And I received increasingly pressured emails about how things were OK to do it that way."
The NEB audited TransCanada, which has proposed both the Energy East and Keystone XL projects, as a result of his six whistleblower allegations, and released a report in 2014 stating that the company was non-compliant on several points, including hazard identification and risk assessment.
Between 2014 and 2015, another individual, who has not been named, made another 16 allegations against TransCanada, Barter told VICE News.
Last March, Reuters reported that the 2014/2015 allegations included "faulty or delayed repairs, sloppy welding work and a failure to report key issues to the regulator."
At that time, TransCanada told Reuters they were investigating internally after someone within the company raised the same concerns.
"Our staff are diligently working with the National Energy Board on the investigation into these allegations and we don't want to say anything that could compromise that investigation," spokesperson Davis Sheremata wrote in an email to VICE News.
"The NEB has determined that none of these allegations involved a threat to the public, the environment or our assets, and we understand that this was also confirmed by the complainant. Beyond this, it would be inappropriate for us to compromise the NEB's regulatory review by speaking about details of our response to the allegations at this point in time," he said.
Sheremata added that the company's 6,000 employees are required to raise concerns about hazards, health and safety, and near misses, and can report concerns either to internal staff or to their 24-hour "Ethics Help Line."
Barter said the NEB's investigation into the 2014/2015 allegations against TransCanada are ongoing.
Companies have to comply with NEB rules, but all of the whistleblower reports have been on issues of non-compliance, Barter said. The reports are separate from major incidents like explosions, fires, and deaths, which must be reported by the companies when they happen.
More serious injuries, fires, and explosions were reported in 2012 than any other year since 2008 — a prevalence that Barter could not explain.
Over the eight-year period, three companies came out on top for the highest total number of incidents: Enbridge, TransCanada and Nova Gas. Enbridge led the pack with 175 incidents over the eight-year period, followed by 165 incidents at TransCanada facilities, and 149 at Nova Gas facilities.
The highest number of deaths occurred in 2011, with three fatalities that year — one each at facilities owned by Enbridge, Nova Gas, and Westcoast Energy.
Of the six overall deaths reported to the NEB since 2008, four were at Enbridge-owned facilities.
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