The media and sections of the public have shown recently an acute interest in Pipeline operational performance incident statistics. Published data for North America shows that 99.999% of crude oil and petroleum products shipped by pipelines reach their destination safely. Some pipeline operators claim even better performance, 99.9996 % being one example. However, should failing to deliver 4 barrels of product for every million shipped be a legitimate cause for concern? If not how about the more general case of 1 per one hundred thousand?

Is pipeline performance being singled out unreasonably when compared to other threats to public and environmental wellbeing such as medical malpractice or industrial waste contamination? Evidence from Canada and elsewhere, indicates that, during their hospital stay, an appreciable number of patients, one in every 18, experience adverse events, such as medication error, injurious falls, infections, and other medical misadventures. Errors (mostly minor), in fulfilling pharmaceutical prescriptions show an even higher error rate — 1 in 4 in one recent study, yet the public appears to be unperturbed.

A common thread is determining what constitutes an acceptable level of risk whether individual or societal, voluntary or involuntary. Besides providing a broader context for pipeline risk, the paper explores the origin and intent of the environmental screening standard of 1 in 10−6, as well as the concept of setting risk tolerance to be as low as reasonably practicable — ALARP. The question of why there may be a reticence for many Pipeline Regulators to set, as other industries have, a prescriptive value for ALARP is considered.

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