Energy companies should invest more of their profits in safety inspections and replacing aging infrastructure, says the former chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Jim Hall spoke to CBC after the Transportation Safety Board of Canada revealed that a pipeline explosion near Prince George, B.C., in 2018 was the result of undetected stress cracks on an aging section of pipeline owned by Enbridge.
The damage went undetected in part because the pipeline’s operator, a subsidiary of Enbridge, postponed an inspection for several months before the blast happened, forcing more than 100 people out of their homes.
“An accident like this should not be happening,” said Hall, who chaired the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 until 2001 before starting a safety consulting firm.
“Industry has got the technology, and they have the tools. The bottom line is, are the companies investing in the necessary infrastructure and improvements, or are they putting the profits in their pocket?”
The explosion report was released in the midst of a high profile conflict over pipelines in Canada, following weeks of rallies and blockades in support of a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs fighting the construction of a new natural gas pipeline in northern B.C., as well as the ongoing dispute about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Meanwhile, about 45,000 kilometres of gas pipelines — enough to circle the entire globe — continue to operate in the province, providing heat and fuel to homes and businesses throughout B.C. and parts of the United States.
That figure, provided by B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission, is just a small portion of the more than 840,000 kilometres of pipelines transporting oil and gas across the country.
For proponents, this vast network shows how safe and reliable the pipelines can be. But for those opposed, the explosions, ruptures and leaks are a reminder of what they’re fighting to prevent.
The safest way to transport oil and gas?
Elder Clifford Quaw first encountered pipeline technology when he encountered a construction crew on his Lheidli T’enneh reserve near Prince George in the 1960s.
“We just watched them. Next thing you know, there’s a pipeline across the Fraser River and it’s been there ever since,” said Quaw, 71.
The pipeline crossed the water on a bridge painted red and white, like a candy cane. Quaw and his childhood playmates considered it so benign, they used it as a play structure — running and clambering over the large gas pipe and climbing the bridge’s towers.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers calls pipelines the “safest and most efficient way to move large volumes of oil and natural gas,” with a long history of operation across the country.
According to Natural Resources Canada, 99.999 per cent of oil transported by federally-regulated pipelines in the country is delivered safely. Meanwhile, B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission says the number of pipeline incidents in the province has steadily decreased as the number of lines increases.
But that record doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. The 2018 explosion near Prince George, for example, occurred on the same pipeline Quah played on as a child. He recalls seeing fire shoot into the sky out his kitchen window.
“It was like the world’s biggest blow torch,” he said. “There it was, a big ball of flame. And heat.”
Now, after five decades of living with the pipeline, the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation has filed a lawsuit demanding it be removed from their land.
Similar issues in Prince George, Kalamazoo
Nobody was injured in the Prince George blast, but that wasn’t the case 10 months later when an Enbridge-owned gas pipeline in Kentucky exploded, killing one and sending six others to hospital.
Hall said both events are reminders of the high stakes if problems aren’t detected ahead of time.
And while the cause of the Kentucky blast has yet to be determined, the root problems leading to the Prince George explosion mirror those behind the July 2010 Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan.
In the Michigan case, in which 3.2 million litres of heavy crude leaked into the water, investigators determined the Enbridge-owned pipeline likely ruptured as a result of “corrosion fatigue cracks that grew and coalesced… under disbonded polyethylene tape coating.”
Likewise, in the Prince George explosion, investigators found the rupture was caused by “stress corrosion cracks” that “eventually coalesced into a larger single crack.” The report also found the “polyethylene tape coating applied to the exterior surface of the pipe… deteriorated over time.”
Though the products in the pipelines differ — unlike oil, natural gas tends to quickly dissipate in the case of a leak — Hall said both incidents could be traced to operators failing to detect problems in aging infrastructure.
“Why are we wasting money investigating these things over and over again if the companies are not going to make the necessary investments to prevent the events from occurring?” he asked.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it had investigated three other incidents similar to the Prince George explosion since 2001: a 2002 rupture and fire near Brookdale, Man., a 2009 rupture, fire and explosion near Swastika, Ont., and a 2011 rupture, fire and explosion near Beardmore, Ont.
All three of those incidents were along lines owned by TransCanada, the company behind the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Cam Spady, who helps run a pipeline integrity company based out of Calgary, said every time an undetected problem manifests itself as an explosion or fire, it sets the entire industry back.
“It makes getting new pipelines built extremely difficult,” he said. “It is very frustrating.”
Although Spady and Hall said the safety record for pipelines is strong when measured against their sheer volume, they also believe it is necessary for companies to eliminate accidents altogether.
“It’s an achievable goal,” Spady said. “Corrosion doesn’t happen overnight, stress cracking like that isn’t overnight.”
Spady said more frequent inspections paired with new technology and methods to detect and predict problems would put a zero-incident rate within reach. Hall agrees.
‘No incident is acceptable’
The Canada Energy Regulator (formerly the National Energy Board, which oversees pipelines) said it has not issued any fines to Enbridge because of the Prince George explosion, but it “will not hesitate to take enforcement actions or impose safety measures, if required.”
In a written statement, the regulator outlined the work it is doing to evaluate the safety of the pipeline, and said it is always finding new ways to hold industry accountable.
“Along with making sure companies are following the rules, we have to find ways to push the boundaries of what the federal regulator can do to help keep energy moving safely,” the statement said, adding that it continuously experiments with new technology and data analysis to help predict risks, and it expects companies to do the same.
For its part, Enbridge said it is committed to learning from every incident, and has made changes to its operations as a result of the Prince George explosion, including more frequent inspections, updating its modelling system for predicting stress cracks, and re-inspecting “virtually all” of its B.C. pipelines.
Likewise, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association told CBC, “No incident is acceptable.”
In an emailed statement, the organization said, “We won’t be happy until we reach our goal of zero incidents. We aren’t there yet.”