Pipeline leak technology insufficient, says expert

Despite the high environmental and health stakes, most oil companies’ pipeline leak detection systems offer few safeguards, says a U.S. pipeline safety expert.

SUNDRE — Despite the high environmental and health stakes, most oil companies’ pipeline leak detection systems offer few safeguards, says a U.S. pipeline safety expert.

Nineteen out of 20 pipeline leaks went undetected by remote sensors from 2002 to 2012, according to data from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration published by InsideClimateNews.org.

Only one out of five leaks over 42,000 U.S. gallons (159,000 litres) was detected by sensors, said Anthony Swift, an attorney and pipeline safety expert from the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

“They are missing a large number of very large spills,” said Swift, who spoke to about 20 people at Eagle Hill Community Hall, 20 km northeast of Sundre, on Wednesday as part of a three-stop tour in Alberta on pipeline safety. The forums were co-hosted by the Alberta Surface Rights Group, Greenpeace, Council of Canadians and Sierra Club.

Most spills are found by oil company workers or landowners.

Albertans shouldn’t feel any better protected. Canadian pipeline standards require a leak of five per cent of a pipeline’s capacity to be identified within five minutes. If the leak is from two to five per cent, regulations require it to be detected within a week, and for a leak of one to two per cent, companies have a month.

Below one per cent of capacity, there is no detection requirement.

Better detection technology is out there, said Swift. It is used in Germany, where more stringent requirements have kept spills to a minimum.

However, North American companies have been slow to follow.

Failing to act quickly can be disastrous. In Michigan in July 2010, a pipeline operated by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. ruptured at a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, spilling about 3.2 million litres of diluted bitumen from the oilsands. The leak went undetected for hours and cleanup cost close to $1 billion.

Closer to home, there have been a number of recent spills.

Apache Canada is still trying to figure out what caused its pipeline to leak about 9.5 million litres of contaminated water from oil production earlier this month.

Also this month, Plains Midstream had to clean up about 950 barrels of natural gas liquids and byproducts spilled in northwestern Alberta. Plains was also the company behind a 3,000-barrel oil spill into the Red Deer River near Sundre a year ago. In 2011, a Plains pipeline leaked 28,000 barrels of oil northeast of Peace River.

Alberta Surface Rights Group president Don Bester said regulators are doing a worse job of checking pipelines than they did when he was in the business in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The regulation has got tougher. The enforcement has gone to zero,” he said.

Doug Malsbury, who raises cattle a few kilometres east of Penhold, wants to know why the government is hanging on to a long-awaited report on pipeline safety.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes promised on Monday to release the report for public comment this summer.

Malsbury, a member of the surface rights group, is skeptical. The report — which he suspects is full of bad news — will only come out if U.S. President Barack Obama has already approved the Keystone XL pipeline transporting oilsands crude to Gulf Coast refineries.

If that doesn’t happen? “I don’t think we’ll ever see (the report), to tell you the truth.”

Malsbury said he has two high-pressure ethane lines running through his property and Nova Chemicals diligently checks them by plane twice a week and sends him testing results.

“If Nova can do it, why can’t Apache or PennWest (Exploration)?” he said.

Swift said some oil and gas companies do their jobs well. But in the absence of strong regulations, too often there is a “race to the bottom,” he said.

Those present were urged to keep the pressure on government to do a better job of regulating pipeline safety.

Mike Hudema, of Greenpeace, pointed out the province’s pipeline safety report was ordered only after 55 groups joined together to demand it.

Albertans must make their voices heard to get action at the government level, he said.

“There comes a tipping point when I believe (politicians) need to listen.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com

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