Monday 21 April 2014

Oil and Gas Pipelines:  Are  they  safe?

On July 1st 1959, a petroleum pipeline exploded, and burned for 7 hours in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, 12 people were killed, and 100 more injured.  On January 17, 1962, an explosion on a gas pipeline occurred on a lateral line about 50 kilometers northwest of Edson, Alberta  8 people were killed. In 1965, an explosion from a gas line destroyed several apartments in the LaSalle Heights Disaster in LaSalle, Quebec killing 28 people, the worst pipeline disaster in Canadian history, On November 1, 1978, a gas pipeline exploded and burned, killing 52 people in Colonia Benito Juarez, Mexico, and injuring 11 in a town of only 100 people. The explosion created a crater 300 feet wide and 20 feet deep. On October 17, 1998, at Jesse in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, a petroleum pipeline exploded killing about 1200 villagers, some of whom were scavenging gasoline. It was the worst of several similar incidents in that country. On July 30, 2004, a major natural gas pipeline exploded in Ghislenghien, Belgium (50 kilometres southwest of Brussels), killing 24 people and leaving 122 wounded—some critically. An explosion of two petroleum pipelines and subsequent fire in the port of Dalian, in northern China's Liaoning province which cause fatalities, damages and an ecological disaster, releasing 11,000 barrels of oil into the Yellow Sea, and covering up, according to different sources, from 50 to 430 km2 of sea and coast lines. The oil pipeline explosion on December 19, 2010 at a Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) pumping station in San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida in central Mexico, killed at least 27 people and injured more than 50. The explosion is believed to have been caused by attempts to puncture the pipe to steal oil. On July 10, 2000, a pipeline explosion near the town of Jesse killed about 250 villagers. In 2011, a Nairobi, Kenya pipeline fire killed approximately 100 people and hospitalized 120. The pipeline had a leak and the victims tried to gather up the leaking oil. On June 19, 2003, a pipeline punctured by thieves exploded and killed 125 villagers near Umuahia, Nigeria. On December 26, 2006, A vandalized oil pipeline exploded in Lagos, Nigeria. Up to 500 people had been killed.


There were many other pipeline explosions around the world and as you can see from the ones I described at the beginning of this article, some of the pipes leaked on their own and others were purposely punctured by thieves trying to steal the oil. Quite frankly, I have no sympathy for those thieves that were killed in the explosions but other victims who were killed were not thieves. Obviously, oil pipelines above ground (which most are) are not always safe.

Out of sight and unnoticed, the United States’ sprawling oil and natural gas pipelines are leaking on the scale of a ruptured supertanker. They are fouling the environment and causing fires and explosions. A single undetected, or ‘ghost ’leak can spill several hundred thousand gallons of petroleum liquid in a year. Some spill volumes are understated in the government statistics, and other spills are not reported at all. The actual pollution load is much greater than the annual reported average of 6.7 million gallons, possibly twice that much—the equivalent of the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill. 


Enbridge is an energy delivery company based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It focuses on transport and distribution of crude oil, natural gas, and other liquids. The company is the largest natural gas distributor in Canada and a major oil pipeline operator in North America. Using data from Enbridge's own reports, the Polaris Institute calculated that 804 spills occurred on Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2010. These spills released approximately 161,475 barrels (25,672.5 square metres) of crude oil into the environment.


Why, one has to ask, are their pipes leaking oil? To answer that question, I will tell you about another Canadian company (TransCanada Corp also known as TransCanada Pipelines). Their pipeline will carry 1.1-million barrels of crude a day from western Canada to refineries in the east. Construction of the 4,500-kilometre (2796 miles) line would involve converting a natural gas pipeline to carry oil, building new line in six provinces along its route, and constructing new terminals.


This firm’s attitude about their faulty oil pipes is so intemperate about their infrastructure, it is no small wonder that their concept of safety is not prime in the way the firm’s managers think.


The federal regulators (The National Energy Board—NEB) found that the energy giant was non-compliant in four of nine areas reviewed.  The energy regulator found instances of non-compliance in four categories: hazard identification, risk assessment and control; operational control; upset or abnormal operating conditions; inspection, measurement and monitoring; and management review.


The audit also confirmed that the whistleblower, Evan Vokes who is an engineer who was then working for TransCanada, had first approached senior management of TransCanada about his concerns about pipeline safety before he went to the regulator as a whistleblower.

When he first raised his concerns to David Taylor, the manager of the firm’s materials and engineering team, Taylor wrote Vokes. “Please stop the investigation [that] you seem to be doing on your own. There is no need to comment on other projects and infer that there is something wrong. As we chatted on Friday, those things can and generally do come back and haunt you down the road.”  He was right. His statement to Vokes has come back to haunt him.

Why did he send that message to Volkes? Was it because Taylor didn’t want any evidence of the safety concerns Vokes expressed in writing rising to surface in the public domain at a later date?

NEB had previously said it had found that Vokes properly took his complaints to the very top of TransCanada management before finally taking his concerns about what he considered to be systemic substandard pipeline welding and inspection practices to the NEB. Their subsequent audit took place between November 2012 and August 2013.

Vokes was subsequently fired by TransCanada a week after he filed a formal complaint with the NEB in May 2011 and has only worked sporadically ever since. I hope he has sued his former employer for wrongful dismissal. If he has, he will be the recipient of a very large court ordered award against the company for wrongful dismissal.

Vokes said he stood up because it was the right thing to do.  He also said, “Nobody stood up. (He was speaking of other engineers in the firm) Professional engineers have a duty of care to society. People should have stood up. They’re in my (internal TransCanada) emails, showing that people knew there was a problem. But nobody would stand up.” unquote

There is no doubt in my mind that the reason why the other engineers didn’t choose to speak out about their concerns was because they probably figured that they would be fired. Considering the fact that Vokes who stood up and complained to the authorities and was subsequently fired, gives support to that probability.

Any organization, whether new or old, small or big, requires certain methods, procedures and plans in place for its efficient functioning. For this to happen, they must develop and implement management concepts which help them implement their vision for the future of the organization. Once the various plans are in action, there must be timely reviews to judge whether they are operating according to the given objectives.


I have no doubt that TransCanada had safety plans created within the firm that would protect the integrity of their pipelines but it appears that those plans were ignored by management.


A former employee of TransCanada said in July 2012, that management was disconnected and out of touch with its employees. He also said that the firm’s management does not speak to or acknowledge its employees. He further said that much time is wasted in meetings that had nothing to do with his job. He said his supervisor constantly complained that he and others were behind in their work without taking into account that they were down one person due to an illness and would not allow overtime. He added that management could not decide what priority was most important.


Another employee said that there was a very high turnover in certain departments and that contract workers rarely lasted more than three months. He also said that advancement in the firm was non-existent.


If those statements are correct, then one can easily see why management was and possibly is still failing in their duties to manage a large corporation. And that in my opinion, is why safety was not foremost in the work ethic of the company.

Firing an engineer who was doing his duty to report to his supervisor that not all was well is a clear indication that TransCanada was attempting to hide from the general public, the deficiencies that Vokes had discovered. That by itself is enough to justify what was later said by
Gillian McEachern, campaigns director at Environmental Defence. He said that the non-compliance findings of NEB raises concerns about the safety of TransCanada pipelines. He also said, “This isn’t a company that we exactly want to trust with a big, risky project that would cross large swaths of Ontario.” Amen to that.


 Vokes wasn’t the only engineer who expressed his concerns about TransCanada’s practices. The records show that another engineer, Chris Penniston resisted requests from Robert Lazor, a senior welding engineer with the firm asking for his approval on some of the welding procedures used on all the pipelines. Penniston replied by saying in his written response, “The NEB could nail us on these things if we are not careful with the way we construct our welding procedures. At this point I would not want to put my name on a procedure using what you are describing.” unquote

The records also show that manager of quality and compliance for Keystone, Tom Hamilton, having rejected a suggestion from Vokes that the company should supply some inspectors to do non-destructive examinations of the pipeline, Hamilton wrote the words “Ha Ha” in respect to Voke’s concerns on October 21, 2011 to Russell Wong, an engineering technologist who was asking about the inspections.

The records also showed a series of internal reports that revealed a history of problems with pipeline construction in the US including liquid natural gas transportation procedures.

Wong in a January 18th 2011 email message to managers at Keystone asked them not to proceed with a contract with a welding inspection company that has a history of poor performances. He said that it posed a high risk to the project from a supplier performance and pipeline integrity perspective.

Ten minutes later, the top project engineer for Keystone, Meera Kothari flatly rejected Wong’s recommendation in writing by saying, “Please stop these emails. This is a project engineer decision.”

Would you want to sail on a ship in which its hull is perforated with holes? Of course not. Do you want a natural gas pipeline built and inspected by these firms I have written about next to your home? Of course not.


On June 7, 2000, a stopple fitting weld failed on a pipeline, causing a rupture releasing 75,000 US gallons (280,000 litres) of gasoline into the environment, and causing the evacuation of more than 500 homes in Blackman Charter Township, Michigan. Two people were hurt when an El Paso Natural Gas pipeline exploded in the Texas Panhandle. The explosion on early Thursday, November 5, left a hole about 30 yards by 20 yards and close to 15 feet (4.6 m) deep. The blast shook homes, melted window blinds and shot flames hundreds of feet into the air. The home nearest the blast — about 100 yards away- was destroyed, and 3 residents from that home were injured. About 200 residents in the area were evacuated.

In a non-binding plebiscite, 58% of 3,071 the residents  of Kitimat,  a west coast town in in British Columbia said that they didn’t want Enbridge building a $7.9 billion twinned pipeline anywhere near their community. I can see why they are concerned. As many as 525,000 barrels each day would flow through the pipeline and if there is a leak in the pipeline, a real environmental disaster would ensue.  However, I would be less than honest if I didn’t add that Enbridge announced that it will spend an extra $500 million to increase the thickness of its pipes. Nevertheless, we must never forget that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  

I for one don’t object to having above ground pipelines crisscrossing our country so long as fools, such as the ones I have criticized in this article have nothing whatever to do with the construction and inspections of those pipelines. If fools continue working in the pipeline industry, there will be constant and never ending pipeline failures bringing death to people and destroying our environment.

It appears that the United States has concerns about the Keystone XL Pipeline. The project has now been put on hold as it is beset with both political and legal challenges. The northern portion of the pipeline is completed in Canada but work on the project has stopped at the US border. If the work is permitted to continue, then this can be good for both Canada and the United States. But the Americans want to be absolutely convinced that if the pipeline is permitted to continue into the United States, an environment disaster won't follow. In other words, the real problem facing the president of the US is this; can he be sure that the people building the pipeline are taking great care to do the job properly and that the integrity of the pipeline will not be compromised. Unless the president is convinced that there will be no problems with the pipeline, he won't give the go ahead to continue bringing the pipeline into the United States.  

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