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Disaster in the Making: Grave Warnings Issued That Keystone Pipeline Is Structurally Flawed

TransCanada is trying to get its Keystone XL pipeline approved, but a whistleblower is raising the alarm.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series, read the second one here on the Tyee.

A pipeline materials engineer, who worked for TransCanada Pipeline for five years, says some of the nation's major pipeline companies are breaking the rules on pipeline safety and that National Energy Board is not adequately enforcing them.

Evan Vokes, a 46-year-old Calgary-based engineer and former TransCanada employee, has filed complaints with the National Energy Board, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA is a self-regulating professional group that represents engineers) and the Prime Minister's Office documenting repeated violations of standard safety regulations and codes.

The alleged offences include repeated violations of several sections of the nation's Onshore Pipeline Regulations (OPR-99) on issues as varied as welding inspections, the safety of materials and conflict of interest.

In addition Vokes also charges that engineers do not always make project and scheduling decisions during pipeline construction (a common lament) and that "unskilled practice by professional engineers in a hurry" is a routine problem throughout the multi-billion dollar industry.

National Energy Board investigating

In response to a Tyee inquiry the board replied that it is actively investigating the allegations. “Board Executives met with senior company representatives to describe the allegations and how seriously the board takes them." One company in particular has been asked to report on their internal investigation of allegations of non-compliance.

Added Erin Dotter, the NEB's communication officer: "The NEB investigation into this file is ongoing and we are thoroughly reviewing and assessing the information that has been submitted. It would not be appropriate to discuss this matter further while it is under investigation."

Vokes' concerns, shared to varying degrees by members of Canada's embattled pipeline industry, have already been partly corroborated by U.S. and Canadian regulatory bodies in a series of recent investigations and reports on pipeline spills.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for example, categorized Enbridge as having a "culture of deviance" on safety matters after it investigated that company's 20,000-barrel bitumen spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The NTSB accused the company of taking advantage of "weak regulations" and not learning from previous incidents.

Enbridge employees also admitted to NTSB investigators that the largest oil spill in U.S. history was "a wake-up call" that highlighted problems associated with rapid growth including staff shortages "and that type of thing."

As a consequence the US Pipeline Hazardous Material Standards Administration (PHMSA), fined the company last summer a record $3.7-million for a total of 24 violations of pipeline regulations jointly enforced by the both National Energy Board (NEB) and PHMSA.

U.S. regulators also caught Kinder Morgan, another big pipeline player with extensive Canadian properties as well as controversial bitumen expansion plans, violating welding codes and nearly a dozen sections of the US Pipeline Safety Regulations while building the Rocky Express natural gas pipeline between 2007 and 2008. It fined the company $400,000 in 2012.

U.S. regulators aren't alone in finding routine violations of code. A 2009 National Energy Board investigation on the death of an electrician at an Enbridge pump station found violations of construction codes and concluded "the safety culture at Enbridge Kerrobert [pump station] was not adequately developed."

NEB made pipeline safety top priority for 2012

Unlike its U.S. counterparts, which have long records of public transparency, The National Energy Board did not begin posting its safety and environmental actions till the fall of 2011. Since 2008 the Board says it has issued 24 Safety Orders against on pipelines owned by Enbridge, TransCanada and Kinder Morgan. None are available on its website.

But the spotlight on pipeline safety has not just fallen on Enbridge, which is now under regulatory scrutiny for its proposed Northern Gateway project as well as another spill at a Wisconsin pipeline in 2012.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, the nation's version of the NTSB, is investigating Houston-based Spectra Energy, which operates 2,900 kilometres of pipeline in British Columbia for two separate 2012 incidents: a sour gas rupture as well as an explosion at a natural gas compressor station that injured two workers just north of Fort St. John, British Columbia.

TransCanada, another big pipeline player and Vokes' former employer, has also been in the headlines. The first phase of TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline leaked 14 times in just two years and the company has now been ordered by the National Energy Board to investigate Keystone's pumping stations in Canada.

Last year a 50-foot section of TransCanada's brand new Bison gas pipeline also blew up in Wyoming due to mechanical damage caused by the improper laying of pipe in the ground. That accident forced a month-long closure.

Although the National Energy Board officially declared pipeline safety its top priority in 2012, Canada's federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has raised serious issues about the board's accountability and enforcement practices.

Tracing Enbridge's learning curve

The Commissioner reported in 2011 that the NEB often identified problems on its 71,000 kilometres of interprovincial pipeline system, but rarely followed up: "there is little indication that the Board takes steps to ensure that the identified deficiencies are corrected."

In fact many of the problems that Enbridge experienced during the $800-million Michigan debacle, the largest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, were flagged by an NEB inspection audit in 2008 that found multiple problems with the company's program for maintaining pipeline integrity. (Because Enbridge operates lines that are intercontinental, it is jointly regulated by the NEB and US PHMSA.)

Although the NTSB flagged the NEB 2008 inspection audit of Enbridge's Canadian operations as an example of the company's poor learning curve, the audit does not appear to be available on the NEB's website.

The audit found, among many other safety failings, that Enbridge's "assessment process and data for determining the crack and corrosion in-line inspection frequency required improvement to prevent failures from reoccurring."

Canada's Commissioner of the Environment also found that Canada's national pipeline regulator did not properly monitor emergency procedures manuals and failed to communicate deficiencies in a timely manner: "We have concluded that the Board's oversight of companies' emergency procedures manuals is deficient," went the report.

According to the Auditor General The NEB had but a budget of $7 million and a staff of 63 to check on regulatory compliance on some of the world’s longest pipelines in 2011.

Since then the NEB has tried frantically to catch up with rapid pipeline infrastructure growth and a doubling of pipeline incidents or what the board calls "an increased trend in the number and the severity of incidents being reported by NEB-regulated companies."

Engineers have 'duty of care': whistleblower

The board reports that it now has a staff of 80 including 35 qualified engineers to enforce the law and will increase inspections from 100 to 150 a year thanks to additional federal funding of $13-million provided this year. Incredibly, it is only now developing a program to fine pipeline operators for non-compliance of regulations.

In 2009 the NEB took on the responsibility of looking after an additional 24,000 km of pipeline owned by Nova Gas and formerly monitored by Alberta's regulators. It did not increase staff at the time.

Meanwhile the office of pipeline safety of the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which has fined offenders for years, has issued alerts, held workshops and given presentations on what it calls new construction "challenges" facing pipeline builders across the continent.

PHMSA presentations include graphic illustrations of cracked pipelines and clearly show a rising incidence of problems related to bad welding practices and improper coating of pipelines.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which investigates accidents, also reports worsening pipeline trends too.

Since 2002 this federal agency has recorded a near doubling of pipeline incidents from an average of 95 a year to 161 incidents in 2011. The federal investigator partly blames the combined effects of the rapid pipeline growth, the conversion of oil to gas pipelines, better reporting, and an aging infrastructure. It is also studying other factors.

All pipelines contain flaws as they are not ideal but the codes set a standard for accepatable risk tolerance. But the most recent issue of the magazine Pipeline International highlights many of the issues raised by Vokes such as the importance of pipeline integrity management. Such a process should allow operators to routinely check that their pipeline networks operate in a safe, reliable, sustainable and optimal manner.

But if neglected and unused, even the most expensive and "high tech" systems or tools will fail warns the magazine article. And if these systems are not properly enforced, adds Vokes, low probability events on pipelines can become catastrophic problems and headline makers.

The Tyee took a copy of Voke's assorted documents to an experienced engineer who has worked in the oil patch for 40 years and here's what he said.

"This man knows what he is talking about and knows his codes and jargon and metallurgy. The industry is moving too fast and doesn't have the people and experience to manage its safety systems."

Added the reviewer: "The regulators haven’t caught up with the right standards and we don't have the senior expertise to oversee some of these issues. Vokes is raising significant issues for the industry."

The issues are significant enough that that Alberta, home to 400,000 kilometres of pipeline, has contracted a Calgary engineering firm to do an independent analysis of pipeline safety and integrity after a series of high-profile oil spills this year.

"There is only story here," adds Vokes who is pleased that the NEB is taking his allegation seriously. "It's what the NTSB report called a 'culture of deviance' and a lack of accountability. And that’s the whole thing," says the engineer.

"When you sign onto engineering ethics you have a duty of care to the public before you do to your employer."

In response to recent pipeline incidents the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (CEPA), a lobby group for the nation's powerful pipeline builders, launched an "Integrity First" campaign last August. An industry press release says that the industry needs "to do more to reduce the frequency and impact of pipeline events."

According to CEPA its members operate and monitor 110,000 kilometres of pipelines or what it calls "energy highways" that carry nearly $60-billion worth of hydrocarbons every year.

Canada's petroleum industry wants to double the nation's oil pipeline capacity from 3 million to 6 million barrels over the next two decades.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a regular Tyee contributor. Find his previous Tyee articles here. His new book is The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.

 
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