Pipeline integrity programs: Is a 5,000 barrel Keystone-style leak likely in Canada?

Chart: Alberta Energy Regulator.

CEPA says pipeline integrity program begun in 2010 is showing results, data suggests pipeline leaks are declining

Thanks, TransCanada, your timing couldn’t have been worse. Spilling 5,000 barrels of crude oil in South Dakota in mid-Nov. just as construction begins on the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline has again stoked British Columbia pipeline opposition. But the data suggests pipeline leaks in Alberta and BC are now smaller and less frequent than they were five or 10 years ago, mostly due to changes to industry standards and the adoption of new technologies.

Patrick Smyth, Canadian Energy Pipelines Association.

Patrick Smyth, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association, says that all aspects of pipeline integrity management have “changed substantially” since 2010, coincidentally only a month after Enbridge’s Line 6B suffered a rupture six feet across that dumped almost 24,000 barrels of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The leak took several years and well over $1 billionUSD to clean up.

Eco-activists often point to Kalamazoo as an example of why pipelines can’t be trusted, given that egregious mistakes were made by Enbridge operators, who misread the pipeline warning systems and exacerbated the release.

It’s fair to say that Kalamazoo is the Exxon Valdez (the 1989 oil tanker disaster that spilled 260,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaska’s coastal waters) of onshore pipeline accidents.

But the data for the Trans Mountain pipeline, which was built in the early 1950s and purchased by Kinder Morgan in 2003, shows that oil releases have been steadily declining over the past decade.

Almost all of the large releases occurred at Kinder Morgan facilities – e.g. the Sumas tank farm in Abbotsford in 2005, the Burnaby terminal in 2009 – where the oil was contained and quickly cleaned up. Releases on the mainline were small, such as the 112 barrels north of Hope, BC that was reported on June 13, 2013.

The one big mainline leak was caused when a  City of Burnaby contractor hit the buried pipeline with a backhoe, rupturing the pipe and spilling 1459.3 barrels of oil into surrounding residential neighbourhoods, with about 40 per cent of the liquid entering the storm drain system, then draining into Burrard Inlet. Kinder Morgan eventually paid a $1,000 fine, was ordered to contribute $149,000 into a BC environmental trust fund, voluntarily paid $100,000 to the BC Common Ground Alliance to fund DigSafe B.C. workshops.

Like the 2010 Kalamazoo spill, the 2007 Burnaby release is a reminder that pipelines are not 100 per cent safe. There is always a tiny chance of a catastrophic spill.

Evidence from Alberta shows that the number of spills and the volume of oil released has also steadily declined.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, the length of pipelines grew by 11 per cent over the past decade, but the pipeline failure rate fell from  2.2 incidents per 1,000 kilometres of pipe in 2007 to 1.1 incidents in 2016.

“This decrease is largely due to improved requirements, industry education, improvements to inspection programs, and a greater focus on pipeline safety within industry,” the AER said on its website that tracks performance metrics for pipelines that are operated wholly within the province.

About 61 per cent of all pipeline releases were less than one cubic metre (6.29 barrels) in 2016. Two high-volume releases by Apache Canada (3,774 barrels) and Enerplus Corporation (2,516 barrels) accounted for 21 per cent of all releases that year. 2015 was not a good year for the industry, as Nexen Energy (31,450 barrels) and

Trans Mountain pipeline releases in barrels. Data compiled from company spill history chart and verified by Kinder Morgan.

Murphy Oil Company (16,983 barrels) were responsible for 63 per cent of total releases within Alberta.

As the AER points out, this data doesn’t provide a true picture of who are the worst performers, which should take into account type of liquid released, ratio to kilometres of pipeline managed, and other metrics, which will be grist for a future column.

But as both the AER and Smyth suggest, the trends are in the right direction primarily because industry is putting more emphasis on pipeline safety.

The 11 members of CEPA’s Integrity First, introduced seven years ago, have pledged not to “compete on safety” and to continually improve their safety records, according to Smythe.

“Companies work together, they share best practices, they will actually share information, hold each other accountable for performance. They do that through assessing their programs and then comparing the results of their program so that everyone continues to improve,” Smyth said in an interview, noting that CEPA members in the program operate over 119,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada.

He says Integrity First started showing results in 2013, when the number of releases began to drop. Last year there were only three liquids releases in Canada, according to CEPA data, none of them significant. To be clear, Smyth is referring to inter-provincial pipelines regulated by the NEB, such as the Trans Mountain line, not intra-provincial pipelines under the purview of the AER or the BC Oil and Gas Commission.

Source: Alberta Energy Regulator.

Another key piece of the strategy to reduce pipeline leaks is new technologies: intelligent PIGs (devices that travel through the line, cleaning and inspecting for weaknesses in the pipe), more sensitive sensors that better leaks when they happen, real-time transfer of data back to the control room, algorithms to quickly analyze that data, high-performance pipe coatings, just to name a few, according to Smythe.

“There’s so many cool things that are going on in the technology space and I would say that over the last five years that’s really ramped up through different organizations like the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada and the Pipeline Research Council International,” says Smyth.

“Where the pipeline operators see value, they’ll get together in a joint venture to pursue the development of the technology. So, we’re seeing a more rapid identification and evolution of new technologies.”

But as Kalamzoo illustrates, human error in the control room or out in the field can undo the benefits of the best technology.

“Our member companies know that you can have the latest and greatest technology, all of the policies and procedures in place, but if you haven’t got a workforce that is adequately trained, that is confident and understands their authority, there’s still an opportunity for an incident,” said Smyth, who points to a framework launched by the NEB in 2014 to improve pipeline safety culture.

Not that many years ago, control room operators might have been reluctant to shut down a pipeline when alarms rang, now that authority has been baked into their job descriptions and the company’s safety culture, according to Smyth. The new emphasis on safety starts with the board of directors and extends to the boots on ground.

“Whereas past procedures required that there were a number of checks and balances and conversations and calls that needed to be made, now that employee in the control room is empowered to say, ‘Something’s not right here, we’re going to shut this thing down,'” he said.

Pipeline safety is a big, technical, and complex issue that bears more investigation. This column has only scratched the surface.

To answer the question posed in the headline, it appears that the pipeline industry has made significant improvements since 2010 that are reflected in the consistent decline in release incidents and smaller volumes of liquids leaked. The progress suggests the likelihood of a big pipeline release an inter-provincial pipeline is tiny and getting smaller all the time.

But industry has not done a good job explaining those advances in the face of significant public concern, particularly in urban centres like Metro Vancouver and Montreal or in indigenous communities along pipeline routes and along the West Coast.

Incidents like Kalamzoo, and now the latest Keystone leak, continue to dominate public debate around pipelines.

Over the next six to 12 months I plan to write more columns about pipeline safety, talking to technical experts who can unpack the arcane science and engineering of transporting oil to market. But I’ll also talk to critics, because industry shouldn’t be taken at its word, and to ordinary Canadians and Americans who are, or might be, affected by proposed projects like the 525,000 b/d Trans Mountain Expansion and 830,000 b/d Keystone XL projects.

“Modern intelligent or smart pigs are highly sophisticated instruments that include electronics and sensors that collect various forms of data during their trip through the pipeline. – Wikipedia.

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