Pipeline safety records under scrutiny as B.C. set to get more

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Kinder Morgan says Trans Mountain project has seen only small leaks in the last decade

By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun July 17, 2012

Pipeline safety records under scrutiny as B.C. set to get more

Boats clean up oil spilled in a Kinder Morgan crude oil pipeline rupture in 2007 along the shore of Burrard Inlet. The company announced Wednesday that its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would be smaller than expected, after fewer shippers signed up.
Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Files , Reuters

Kinder Morgan’s 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline that transports oil from Alberta to southwestern B.C. has averaged about one leak a year in the past decade, but has not experienced the kind of major spill seen more recently in Alberta and Michigan from other pipelines.

“The pipeline is in many ways in better condition than when it was constructed almost 60 years ago,” said Kinder Morgan vice-president of operations engineering Hugh Harden.

“We have extensive integrity management programs that identify defects from original construction [and] removes them or repairs them. The tools we have today can see much smaller defects than we used to, maybe even 10 years ago,” he said.

The public’s interest in the risk of leaks on oil pipelines has been heightened in British Columbia, with two major projects moving forward in the province.

Kinder Morgan Canada has a $4.1-billion plan to twin its existing pipeline to tap into growing oil demand in Asia. And Enbridge is in the midst of a federal review of its $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project, also to ship oil to Asia.

But existing pipelines are also under the public microscope after a scathing National Transportation Safety Board report released last week found it took Enbridge 17 hours after the initial alarm to take action on an oil spill in Michigan in 2010. The report also noted Enbridge failed to fix the pipeline, despite knowing since 2004 it suffered from corrosion.

Harden said Kinder Morgan will be scrutinizing the U.S. safety board report on Enbridge for lessons. “Is there something we need to look at in our operations? Because nobody is perfect,” he said.

Kinder Morgan would only say it spends “tens of millions” annually maintaining and repairing the Trans Mountain line, declining to provide more detailed information for business reasons.

The company also declined to provide details on spill incidents in the past decade, but National Energy Board data show there have been nine leaks on the pipeline since 2002, which spilled a total of nearly 4,800 barrels of oil.

The largest pipeline spill took place in 2007, when about 1,400 barrels of oil leaked in Burnaby after an excavator punctured the line.

Two other spills of similar size took place in 2005 at the Sumas tank farm and in 2009 at the Burnaby terminal.

The other six spills were of much smaller sizes, including two in 2011: a nine-barrel spill at its Kamloops terminal, and a 10-barrel spill near Chip Lake, Alta.

In comparison, recent spills in Alberta and the Enbridge spill in 2010 in Michigan were larger.

A Plains Midstream pipeline leak in 2011 spilled about 28,000 barrels northeast of Peace River, Alta. Another Plains Midstream leak last month spilled up to 3,000 barrels into a tributary of the Red Deer River in west-central Alberta.

The Enbridge pipeline rupture in Michigan in 2010 spilled 21,000 barrels of oil, some of it into the Kalamazoo River.

Kinder Morgan says the integrity of the Trans Mountain pipeline has been helped by the fact it was built to the highest standards available in 1953, which included a plastic coating and cathodic protection system, which provides an electric current, to protect if from corrosion.

The company also uses specialized tools that examine the pipeline from inside to look for metal loss, cracks and deformations such as wrinkles. Pipeline sections are checked every five years.

The company will dig up and repair sections of the line when needed, said Harden.

The biggest section of line ever replaced was a 1.2-kilometre section under the Fraser River at the Port Mann Bridge in 2002, at a cost of about $5 million, noted Harden.

Environmental groups in British Columbia have taken a hard stand against pipeline expansion and have pointed to the record of existing pipelines in the province.

Western Wilderness Committee campaigner Ben West said he was skeptical of Kinder Morgan’s safety record in B.C.

“I guess just in the broader sense, it seems harder and harder to trust these oil companies at their word,” he said. “We hear from them they will do everything in their power to make these the safest pipelines possible. And it seems like every other week there’s something rupturing.”

B.C. Business Council executive vice-president Jock Finlayson said focusing in on a small number of pipeline spills is misleading because the overall safety record is good. But pipeline companies and regulators need to be prepared to disclose more information about their safety records because environmental groups have grown into formidable forces in Canada and the U.S., he said.

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