Deadly Sinopec pipeline blast in China raises questions in BC

Around 18,000 people were evacuated after an oil spill in China on Nov.22, 2013. Photo by China Daily.

When Chinese energy giant Sinopec's leaking oil pipeline exploded and killed 55 people in Qingdao last Friday, the accident hit a nerve for some BC residents.

Sinopec has invested billions in Alberta's tar sands and holds a five per cent stake in the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. The Chinese state-owned company is also discussing investments in Kitimat LNG projects with Apache and Chevron and has plans to expand its shale gas operations in BC. 

Gerry Hummel, a member of Douglas Channel Watch, a group of residents who came together during the 2012 Enbridge hearings, said Kitimat would stand no chance if an accident like the blast in Qingdao took place near his community.

“If an oil spill happened further down our valley and the pipeline caught on fire, we'd be trapped," he said. "There's only one road out of here.” 

He said he didn't know about Sinopec's safety standards in China, but that Enbridge's safety record is "pathetic".

"Sinopec's track record at home and abroad is less than desirable when it comes to pipeline safety," said Lake Cowichan resident Kevin Logan, who was a ministerial assistant to former premier and Minister of Energy Mines and Northern Development Dan Miller.

Sinopec has a checkered track record in Canada. In 2007, two Chinese temporary foreign workers brought to work in Alberta’s oil sands by Sinopec were killed when a tank’s structure collapsed on them.

The company pleaded guilty to three out of an unprecedented 53 charges laid by the Alberta government for breaching safety measures. Two years later, Sinopec was fined $1.5 million for the deaths.

Harvard University divested holdings in Sinopec stock in 2006 after finding that the company was complicit in genocide in Darfur and found to have violated human rights as it acquired assets in developing countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The latest pipeline explosion in Qingdao adds to its bad record. Police detained nine Sinopec employees after the pipeline erupted.

But Sinopec is hoping to be a key gas player in Canada, with annual capacity targets of 10 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas by around 2020 to help feed China's growing demand for the cleaner fuel. It has also worked closely with ENN Canada Corp, a subsidiary of a Chinese gas company that is working to build LNG plants in Vancouver and Edmonton. 

"There are few other pairs of countries like Canada and China that complement each other," said Feng Zhiqiang, chairman of Sinopec's main acquisition vehicle in North America, in an interview with Business News Network.  Premier Christy Clark announced meanwhile that "Sinopec is now seriously pursuing investment for one or more projects in our province." 

To facilitate more foreign investment, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has signed a signed a trade agreement with China known as the China-Canada Foreign Investment and Protection Agreement (FIPA). Although not yet ratified, Logan thinks the agreement could lead to less accountability to Chinese-owned companies working in Canada.

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