Another spill, another excuse for environmentalists to block the Keystone XL and Northern Gateways of this World. Alberta suffered its third significant oil spill of 2012 near Elk point 200 km northeast of Edmonton, as Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline spilled some 1450 barrels of oil onto farmland. This comes as environmental crews are still cleaning up two larger oil spills in Alberta near Red Deer in Alberta’s deep north.
One can now expect to see the Pembina Institute, Greenpeace et al. descend on Alberta with renewed fervour to oppose the Oil Sands development. Likewise, south of the border, environmental groups will use these spills as further proof that Keystone XL and other pipeline projects must be stopped. Industry insiders and astute observes might come to a different conclusion based on these spills.
It is well known in the industry that the leading cause of pipeline rupture is third party related. That is to say that a pipeline is most likely to be ruptured when a construction crew doesn’t do its land surveying due diligence. In the rest of incidences, the leading cause for ruptures or spills are corrosion and excess pressure.
Now both these causes have their own causes, which are the ones environmentalists should be worrying about.
Corrosion occurs most often when the interior coating of a pipeline isn’t adequately maintained and is exposed for long periods of time to acidity. Heavy crude oil can be highly viscous and must be diluted with various sorts of acids and chemicals to help ease the flow in a pipeline. Such additives may corrode a pipeline over time when coating isn’t sufficiently or regularly applied. In Germany, for example, most of the pipeline infrastructure dates from the post war recovery, and thanks to consistent coating, the industry there reports some of the lowest incident records.
Excess pressure is a problem due to mismatching of the pressure pumped through a pipeline and its design pressure capacity. With time the structural integrity of a pipeline tends to diminish somewhat, which means that pressure needs to be corrected downward as a pipeline ages. With the ramp up of production in the Bakken oil fields of North-Dakota and Oil Sands in Alberta’s Athabasca Region, the expectation is that pipeline operators will be pushed to capacity, increasing pressure flow to its limits and playing catch up on pressure capacity assessment.
In both cases monitoring is key to safety. Nobody argues that industry norms need to be updated regularly if not imposed through regulation. What can be argued is that in both cases there is a common variable. Time. A Canadian study by the Energy Board of Canada said that non third party related spills were time dependent. On average the first spill in a pipeline system occurred after 28 years of operation. After adequate monitoring of pressure and coating adequacy quality control, the most important contributor to pipeline spill prevention is keeping pipeline systems young. In other transportation industries such as airlines, shipping and railroads the norm is to limit the age of fleets as well as do proper maintenance.
So what do Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have to do with all this? These pipelines would both do three things. One, they would reduce average pressure throughout the North American pipeline system by increasing flow capacity for a predetermined amount of oil and gas production. Secondly, modes of oil transportation with even worst safety records wouldn’t be used. Trains and trucks tend to derail or get into highway accidents, causing injuries or fatalities as well as spills that wouldn’t occur in pipelines; today without XL and Northern Gateway trucks and trains are increasingly being used to transport large amounts of oil. The third effect of building Keystone and Northern Gateway would be to decrease the average age of the pipeline system, as they’d be new.
All in all these pipeline mega projects would serve to increase safety of the North American energy industry and reduce ecologically destructive oil and gas spills. Environmentalists should ask themselves whose side they’re on: the anti-oil lobby side, or the environment’s.
You can read more commentary and analysis from this columnist at the blog http://mtleconomist.wordpress.com
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
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