Pipeline Whistleblower: Cracks in The System

Insider ties poor weld inspections to rising rate of ruptures. Part two of a Tyee investigation. Part 2 of a series.

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Evan Vokes, a 46-year-old Calgary pipeline engineer, is a man with a mission, and a conscience.

While building natural gas pipelines in Canada, Mexico and the United States for TransCanada Corporation, he started raising concerns about industry practices.

Vokes had an important inside job: he was the guy that ensured the pipelines were constructed safely.

His specific duties included metallurgy and welding. He also specialized in an important accountability process known as non-destructive examination. And he didn’t like what he was seeing.

At the invitation of Russ Girling, TransCanada’s CEO, Vokes provided documents to senior executives of the company (it is Keystone XL’s controversial sponsor) that allegedly documented systemic failure to follow code and regulations in 2011.

Shortly afterwards, the engineer lodged a complaint with regulators in Canada and the U.S. Last May TransCanada fired the engineer without cause.

Drawing on examples from the records of Enbridge and Kinder Morgan (the CBC is investigating TransCanada’s record) Vokes is going public with his concerns about an industry facing unprecedented growth and what even the National Energy Board (NEB) describes as “an increased trend in the number and the severity” of pipeline incidents.

Vokes has stellar company. In particular, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has accused Enbridge, a Canadian company jointly regulated by the NEB and the U.S. Pipeline Hazardous Materials Standard Administration (PHMSA), of nurturing a “culture of deviance” on safety and integrity issues after a dramatic Michigan pipeline rupture in 2010. That debacle caused the largest and most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Moreover, a lengthy 2008 audit of the company by the National Energy Board documented similar flaws two years before the event.

It found that company was not upholding the rules and regulations on pipeline integrity and safety in Canada either.

“Enbridge’s integrity management program for pipelines and facilities do not meet some of the provisions required by” Onshore Pipeline Regulations and CAS-Z662 Oil and Gas Pipeline Systems, said the extensive audit which the NEB did not make public at the time.

In addition to “multiple findings of non-compliance and non-conformance” with regulations, the NEB also documented that Enbridge didn’t have a process for “defining and evaluating the level of qualification and competence of contractors and consultants.”

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The company also didn’t know how valid and effective its assessments of corrosion and cracking were in its pipeline safety program.

As a result the NTSB concluded that Enbridge’s Michigan spill was partly the result of weak regulations, weak enforcement and a corporate disregard for learning from past mistakes.

In attempt to catch-up with events, the National Energy Board released a discussion paper on pipeline safety that pointedly echoes the very issues raised by Vokes.

The paper says that “accident prevention requires active leadership by management on safety issues” and adds that “there must be effective implementation of the right controls to manage, mitigate or eliminate hazards and risk.”

‘Someone is going to die’

It’s exactly these kind of problems and accountability failures that Vokes is now trying to highlight as Canada prepares to double its pipeline capacity with controversial bitumen and diluent highways across the continent.

“Someone is going die and they just don’t know it yet,” explains Vokes, a large, intense and careful man who spoke to both the Tyee and the CBC over the last several weeks.

He’s also filed his concerns and allegations with the National Energy Board, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) and U.S. Pipeline Hazardous Materials Standard Administration (PHMSA). Documents have also been sent to the office of the prime minister.

The NEB told the Tyee that the board is taking the allegations and complaints made by Vokes seriously and is investigating them. In contrast, AGEGA, a self-regulating professional body, did not answer two separate queries from the Tyee.

“My motivation is to prevent unnecessary death and environmental damage,” adds the engineer who has also been a welder and millwright.

“The controls for the industry are there but they are not being implemented or enforced. We have the technology to do things right, but we don’t have the willpower.”

Adds Vokes: “The pipeline industry must take accountability for the true safe construction of pipelines rather than a risk based approach based on faulty data sets on threats to integrity.”

Risk-filled enterprise

Pipeline builders depend on high quality steel, careful engineering, expert welding and competent safety programs that are all subject to a variety of strains and stresses including commercial pressures to get pipe in the ground as fast as possible.

Dense professional jargon, detailed engineering codes and intricate metal science often make pipeline construction and integrity “a difficult subject to understand,” adds Vokes.

“The public has little protection from engineering decisions on pipelines, whether or not they are made by professional engineers,” says the engineer.

The most critical issue is not what companies do after a pipeline has been built, explains Vokes, but the quality of materials, welding and inspection performed during the construction.

In fact, the near doubling of pipeline incidents on Canadian pipelines (from an average of 95 to 161 in 2011) in some ways mirrors British Columbia’s leaky condo scandals.

Several codes now govern the construction of pipelines carrying hydrocarbons in North America, including the American Society for Mechanical Engineering B31.4 and B31.8 and the Canadian Standard’s Association Z662 also known as Oil and Gas Pipeline Systems.

These codes are good says Vokes, but “do not contain a blanket statement for permitting a violation when a company is in a hurry. Those violations happen everyday in this town. But there is no ‘get er done’ clause.”

Case examples: Cracks in the system

In 2008, Enbridge built a 504-kilometre long oil pipeline from Cromer, Manitoba to Clearbrook, Minnesota called Southern Lights.

Shortly afterwards, the National Energy Board, which oversees the safety of interprovincial pipelines, heard about numerous welding quality problems along the pipeline.

“Given the potential systemic nature of defects associated with pipe manufacture and pipe field joining” an NEB letter asked Enbridge for more information about the cracks popping up in its girth welds, a growing epidemic throughout the industry.

A girth weld joins the individual sections of the pipe. If it is not done properly it can break or crack either during construction or later, resulting in leaks and ruptures. PHMSA flagged the problem with a major advisory in 2010.

Enbridge replied to NEB’s request for more information with an unsigned report on girth weld cracks. The four-page document noted that there were 21 cracks and two hydrostatic testing failures in the Southern Lights pipeline on the Canadian side of the project as well as cracks in the U.S. portion. (Hydrostatic testing fills a pipeline with water under high pressure and is a rudimentary way of determining if a pipeline will rupture in service.)

Enbridge’s anonymous 2009 report (like any professional group such as doctors and lawyers, engineers must authenticate and validate documents by signing them) explained that the cracking problems “occurred in high wind chill conditions brought about by ambient temperatures combined with strong Prairie winds.” It added the pipeline had been built according to code and duly repaired “with best welding practices.”

But Vokes says that’s probably not the whole story as pipelining is an outdoor endeavour. A properly supervised welding operation takes the weather conditions into account and modifies welding procedures accordingly. “If you have a high repair rate on a pipeline then you are not following proper welding procedure,” he explains. “Pipeline welding is a manufacturing process on the move.”

Implementation is everything in this business, adds Vokes. “Quality plans count. If you don’t make your welders follow the specified plan, you have a fuck-up.”

Industry experts as well as a 2002 paper on the integrity of pipelines make exactly the same point: “Cracking in pipelines is not usually a defect assessment problem; it is usually an indication that operation, product or environment is a major problem.”

In fact a natural gas pipeline (Rocky Express) built by Houston-based Kinder Morgan across the Great Plains in 2007 and 2008 experienced endless repair work due to shoddy welding practices and commercial pressures to get the pipe in the ground.

In 2012, PHMSA fined Kinder Morgan, which wants to expand its TransMountain pipeline across the Canadian Rockies, nearly half a million dollars for 13 specific violations of pipeline construction codes and regulations. (The NEB currently has no system for fining companies that violate regulations but has proposed one.)

The list of Kinder Morgan’s transgressions is long.

According to PHMSA, Kinder Morgan did not follow quality welding procedures properly; nor did it perform welding “in accordance with proper procedures.” It also “did not adequately inspect the welding.” In addition, the company failed to prevent damage to pipe while backfilling trenches. Nor did the company remove defects in the pipe properly. It also didn’t use the properly designed pipe along one section.

But poor welding isn’t the only cause of cracked pipe in the industry. External and internal corrosion play major roles as does dented and damaged pipe. The National Energy Board now reports that nearly 30 per cent of all pipeline failures Canada are due to cracking.

Non-destructive examination

During the construction of a pipeline, inspectors must confirm and validate a number of procedures to ensure the integrity of the welds on an ongoing basis.

Manual welds with a cellulosic rod are common for pipes going up and down steep slopes. But a bad weld, say, at the top (12 o’clock position at the start of the weld) or at the bottom (six o’clock position) on a high strength steel pipe made by a cellulosic rod, can cause what the industry refers to as delayed cracking, cold cracking or hydrogen cracks.

Hydrogen, the first element on the periodic table, can migrate in solid steel to an area of stress at warm temperatures. When the steel cools, the hydrogen can get stuck and cause delayed cracking. It has long been a major issue in pipeline and building construction around the world.

To check for such cracks the industry uses a variety of different tools after the weld is completed. (In engineer jargon, “non-destructive examination” (NDE) checks the quality of pipeline welds and materials without damaging them.)

Or as Vokes puts it: “Welding determines the speed of construction and NDE holds it hostage.”

The primary tools include radiography (it looks for defects in pipe density with gamma rays); manual ultra sonic, which looks for defects by sending a signal into the pipe with a fixed angle probe; or automatic ultra sonic (AUT). It uses sophisticated probes that look at the pipe from many angles.

Of the three tools AUT is the most effective for scanning the whole pipe and identifying the nature of defects and validating the integrity of the weld. “With AUT you can inspect any pipe wall, a quarter inch or thicker. It’s the best.”

Crucial pipelines jeopardized by failure to consult first nations, Prentice warns

A prominent former minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet has slammed Ottawa for failing to meet its constitutional obligations to consult first nations on West Coast pipelines, saying the government needs to move quickly to rescue projects that are essential to the country’s future prosperity.

In a speech delivered Thursday at the University of Calgary, CIBC vice-chairman Jim Prentice – who held several senior posts in the Conservative government, and is an expert on aboriginal law – delivered a scathing critique of complacency and short-sightedness in both the government and oil industry for failing to prepare more aggressively for the “seismic shift” under way in the global energy sector.


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“The Crown obligation to engage first nations in a meaningful way has yet to be taken up,” he said in that speech.

A failure to consult with aboriginal bands is not merely a political misstep: It could have dire legal repercussions for the proponents of pipelines through British Columbia. The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has a duty to consult with aboriginal communities over developments that would impact their traditional land, and to accommodate their concerns. Failure to do so has triggered successful legal actions by aboriginal bands.

In an interview, Mr. Prentice said the country must expand its capacity to export oil and natural gas from the West Coast to take advantage of growing Asian markets. Building that access is “one of the most important – and certainly one of the most challenging – initiatives our country has encountered in decades,” he said.

The Calgary native told his hometown audience that Ottawa’s neglect of the aboriginal relations could doom proposed oil pipelines, including Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway project and Kinder Morgan Inc.’s TransMountain pipeline expansion.

“The obligation to consult with and accommodate first nations … these are responsibilities of the federal government,” said Mr. Prentice, who held posts as minister of Indian affairs, industry, and environment before leaving government in 2010. “And take it from me as a former minister and former co-chair of the Indian Claims Commission of Canada, there will be no way forward on West Coast access without the central participation of the first nations of British Columbia.”

He argued that Ottawa should negotiate an agreement that ensures native communities can support pipeline projects without affecting their unsettled land claims and launch a co-management regime with those aboriginal communities for port terminals and shipping.

But first-nations leaders want more: They want revenue-sharing and a share of the profits.

“The word here is potential – we’ve got all of these proposals and they represent massive potential investment,” said David Porter, chief executive of the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, which represents B.C. chiefs.

“But for that to happen there has to be a serious discussion with the aboriginal representatives in British Columbia and particularly on the West Coast.”

Federal ministers have argued the native communities are being consulted through the environmental assessment process that is now being conducted by a federal review panel.

But Mr. Porter said the scope of that review is far too limited to be considered adequate consultation, and there has been no evidence of accommodation, though Enbridge and TransMountain have both offered ownership stakes to aboriginal communities along the pipeline routes. And he said if the federal government proceeds as it has, the pipeline proposals will be held up in court battles for years.

Lawyers working for first nations have said federal consultation has, to this point, been minimal. Instead, Ottawa has set a 90-day consultation window that would begin after the joint review panel examining the project does its work.

That is “completely inadequate,” said Allan Donovan, a Vancouver lawyer who has argued consultation matters before the Supreme Court, and is representing the Haisla Nation, which asserts rights to land where Gateway would terminate.

“We really don’t want to be talking at a time when the only issue left open is what colour of paint you use on the bottom of the hulls of tankers,” he said.

That stands in contrast to the B.C. government, which has worked in recent years to begin consultation work at a much earlier date, Mr. Donovan said. He also noted that attempts by Enbridge – a corporation – to communicate with first nations would not be considered Crown consultation, nor would the hearings held by the joint review panel.

It is clear, he said that Ottawa “dropped the ball. They never even had a hold of the ball as far as I can see.” That has provided an opening for first-nations opponents, for whom a constitutional challenge is a clear option.

“It’s very likely that that’s exactly what would occur if, despite everything, the government approved the project,” Mr. Donovan said.

A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan could not provide a response to Mr. Prentice’s charges before deadline last night.

Canadian opposition to the Northern Gateway project is on the rise, according to a poll conducted by Forum Research Inc.

Of those surveyed across Canada on Sept. 26, 48 per cent opposed the project, 34 per cent were in favour and 18 per cent said they didn’t know. In British Columbia, 55 per cent of those polled said they were opposed, 37 per cent were in favour and the rest didn’t know.

B.C. opposition to the Northern Gateway proposal was at 46 per cent in mid-December last year, but rose to 65 per cent in a sampling Aug. 1 by Forum Research.

“It appears the more British Columbians learn about Northern Gateway, the less likely they are to dismiss it out of hand,” Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff said in a statement Thursday.

The latest telephone poll of 1,758 Canadians is considered accurate within 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The Conservative government has loudly trumpeted its desire to expand commercial relations with Asia for the past two years, and has won kudos from business groups for its heightened focus on the issue. But critics say the country remains ill-prepared for the dramatic shift in economic power that is now occurring.

“We need a national debate on this, and it is only just beginning,” said Wendy Dobson, an economist and China-expert at the University of Toronto.

Mr. Prentice said Canada’s access to the rich U.S. market has left industry and government complacent for too long.

“We are new to the global energy game and, frankly, we aren’t yet playing that game with much skill, foresight or cohesiveness,” he said. “Despite our natural advantages, we have failed to occupy the strategic high ground.”

Editor’s Note: David Porter’s name and title have been corrected in the online edition of this story.