New data compiled by the National Energy Board in Canada suggests that human error is increasingly a factor in pipeline leaks and that pipeline operators are not paying pipeline safety the attention it deserves.
"It's both probably one of the most difficult things for an organization to deal with, but also the most important," said Mark Fleming, a professor of safety culture at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Incorrect pipeline operation — which covers everything from failing to follow procedures to using equipment improperly — has caused an average of 20 leaks per year. That's up from an average of four annually in the previous six years. Such numbers are even higher in the United States.
What may seem inconsequential at first can later contribute to a disaster, Fleming said.
Pipelines installed in the U.S. in the past five years have the highest rate of failure of any built since the 1920s, and human error is partially to blame, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Washington-based Pipeline Safety Trust.
"A lot of new pipelines being put in the ground just aren't being installed right, or things don't get tightened up quite enough, so within the first year or two things fail," said Weimer.
Patrick Smyth, vice-president of safety and engineering at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, said there are cost implications associated with the development of a culture of safety: "Getting pipelines towards the higher safety standards of industries like airlines will likely require significant financial sacrifice. To be able to do that, you need to have a very cautious approach to doing work, and that's something that's hard financially. It does have some cost implications that we are often very uncomfortable talking about."