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Enbridge's pipeline spills, PR headaches and corporate history

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Pipeline Risks and Corporate (Ir)responsibility


Enbridge already had a tough task ahead in the summer of 2012.


With opinion polls showing rising concern with its Northern Gateway proposal, and many First Nations rejecting offers of revenue-sharing and involvement, the company had its work cut out for it to convince the public.


On July 10, a proverbial bombshell struck. South of the border, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its long-anticipated report on Enbridge's catastrophic pipeline rupture on Michigan's Kalamazoo River.


The spill, almost exactly two years before, had unleashed 25,000 barrels of bitumen – an estimated 3.2 million litres - into the river eco-system, coating Canada geese and fish alike in a black, slick coat and affecting at least 320 local residents with crude oil exposure symptoms.


Most scathingly, the U.S. government investigation concluded that Enbridge had acted like the bumbling television duo Keystone Kops, failing to detect or adequately respond to a rupture of their major pipeline.


According to company rules, any operator finding pressure or flow abnormalities must shut down the affected pipeline within a 10-minute period. Enbridge operators did not detect the rupture or shut down the pipeline for a full 17 hours despite repeated alarms and low pressure readings.

“Enbridge believes that at the time of the accident it met or exceeded all applicable regulatory and industry standards in its operations,” the company insisted following the NTSB report.


The Kalamazoo River still suffers from the 2010 pipeline breach. But that accident is not the only failure along Enbridge's extensive network of pipelines. In fact, ruptures are, apparently, regular occurrences for the company. And the firm's opponents argue that the so-called “Keystone Kops” can simply not be trusted.


Setting out by canoe along the banks of the Kalamazoo two years later, Pat Daniel hoped to convey confidence as he prepared to inspect his firm's clean-up efforts. The 65-year old chemical engineer-turned-Enbridge CEO insisted his firm had learned its lesson.


“To cast doubt on the operational capability of a company that’s considered to be best in the world does create additional challenges for us,” he lamented.” We just have to ensure that we explain fully to (British Columbia) residents that that was not representative of the culture and outline ... the changes that we have made.”

Pipeline Safety?

Pipeline proponents assert that pipelines are the safest way to transport bitumen and oil, as compared to trucks and rail. According to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), transmission pipelines in Canada carry about three million barrels of crude each day to markets across the continent. To transport the same volume of crude each day would require an additional 1,500 rail cars or 15,000 tanker truck loads each day.


CEPA president Brenda Kenny says this kind of rail or tanker transportation would increase environmental emissions, congestion on roads and risk of accidents. She notes that 0.0002% of product from liquid pipelines gets spilled each year.


Using CEPA’s figure of 1.2 billion barrels of crude oil moved by Canadian pipelines each year, this would mean a yearly spill of 240 barrels of oil. Yet Enbridge’s self reported spills from 2003-2007 average 7,725 barrels per year. The Enbridge pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in July 2011 released 25,000 barrels of bitumen. However, the spill occurred in the US rather than Canada.


Opponents of the Northern Gateway don’t view riskier forms of bitumen transport as the viable alternative to the pipeline. They ask whether it makes sense to pursue risky and polluting forms of energy production at all when alternatives offer less risk and a higher likelihood of long term prosperity for Canada as a whole.


According to a report by the NRDC and Sierra Club, pipelines carrying bitumen diluted with volatile natural gas condensate are sixteen times more likely to leak than lines carrying ordinary crude. Diluted bitumen’s high acidity, sand content, chloride salts and sulfur content all contribute to a combination of physical and chemical corrosion. Sediments can settle in the pipeline, wearing through in a particular area as happened to the BP pipeline on Alaska’s North Slope which spilled 800,000 litres.


Diluted bitumen is forty to seventy times more viscous than conventional crudes, and so pipelines must operate at much higher heat and pressure to move it through. An industry rule of thumb is that the rate of corrosion doubles with every 10 degrees Celsius increase in temperature. At high temperatures, the natural gas condensate can form gas bubbles that cause sudden bursts of high pressure strong enough to deform pipeline metal.


Pipelines are monitored from far away stations that have leak detection systems and control over cut off valves. It took 12 hours for pipeline operators to stop the oil spilling out of the Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.


The Enbridge Norman Wells pipeline in the Northwest Territories spilled over 250,000 litres from a pin hole size leak that escaped detection. Detecting a leak of bitumen is more difficult than detecting a conventional oil leak due because gas bubbles send faulty signals to the detection system. Actual leaks are more likely to be disregarded as normal pipeline “noise.”


Canada’s minimum standards for oil pipelines, and its spill and response standards, do not distinguish between bitumen and crude oil. Safety standards periodic line balance measurements and the minimum requirements allow loss of two percent of the pipeline’s capacity in a week. For the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, this would allow over 11 million litres a week to remain undetected.

This is the first piece in a three month series of reports on Canada's pipeline decisions and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.  For more, read "Extract: The Pipeline Wars."


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