Are TransCanada pipelines safe?

"We could see these massive 200- to 300-metre high flames just shooting out of the ground, and it literally sounded like a jet plane."

“We could see these massive 200- to 300-metre high flames just shooting out of the ground, and it literally sounded like a jet plane.”

That’s the way a resident of southern Manitoba described the rupture and subsequent explosion of a natural gas pipeline near his home in Otterburne, a community approximately 50 km south of Winnipeg. Miraculously, no one was hurt in the January 2014 accident, which resulted in the evacuation of several homes and left thousands without gas service for days.

The natural gas pipeline near Otterburne wasn’t the first to fail in North America, nor is it the most recent. On the morning of Sept. 16, 2014, similar infrastructure broke in Benton Township, Michigan, forcing the evacuation of more than 500 people. The Benton incident came a little more than three years after a 914-mm pipeline near Beardmore, Ontario ruptured, releasing an estimated 98.5 million cubic feet of sweet natural gas into the atmosphere and causing an explosion large enough to toss pieces of steel pipe up to 100 m from its epicenter.

Englehart, Ontario was the scene of another pipeline break in September 2009. A portion of the 3.4 million cubic metres (m3) of sweet natural gas lost in the incident ignited, creating a large crater and breaking two sections of pipe, one of which was hurled approximately 150 metres from the rupture site. Though no injuries were reported, 25 hectares of forest and grassland burned, and four families in the vicinity were evacuated.

While the causes of these and at least seven other major pipeline failures in the past two decades vary, they all have one thing in common: they involved natural gas transmission lines owned or operated by TransCanada PipeLines Ltd., the firm planning to build similar infrastructure south of Burns Lake.

TransCanada claims that pipelines are the safest way to transport natural gas over long distances. Yet that’s little comfort to several social and environmental groups opposing its pipeline proposals here and elsewhere in North America.

“They (TransCanada officials) don’t like to talk about the nine catastrophic pipeline failures on their Canadian gas lines since 1991,” states the Council of Canadians, this country’s leading social action organization.

According to a June 2014 publication by the group, “when it comes to pipelines, it not a matter of if a pipeline spills, it is a matter when, where and how much it spills.” In that document, the group states that in Canada, “pipeline incidents (ruptures, spills, explosions, leaks) have doubed in the last decade” and “safety-related incidents — from fires to spills — rose from one for every 1,000 km of pipeline to two per 1,000 km of pipeline” during the same period.

TransCanada officials claim the company’s sophisticated monitoring systems can detect any changes in pipeline pressure and respond to emergencies in minutes. The Council of Canadians challenges this statement, and suggests that members of the general public are more likely to discover a pipeline rupture than any leak detection system.

“Our review of Transportation and Safety Board reports on TransCanada’s Mainline pipeline system incidents reveals that only one of the eight ruptures was discovered by a leak detection system,” states the council in its 2014 publication. “In the case of the Brookdale, Manitoba rupture (in April 2002), a detection system did trigger a signal, but failed to register the extent of the rupture for more than 10 minutes, by which time members of the public were already raising the alarm.”

The Brookdale incident took place in 2002, when a section of TransCanada’s 914-mm 100-3 line ruptured. The escaping gas self-ignited, forcing the evacuation of 100 people within a four-km radius.

“The other ruptures were discovered by staff, nearby residents, and an OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) officer,” the council continued in its report. “It took anywhere between 10 minutes to 2.5 hours from the time of the rupture to when the gas supply was shut off. In Beardmore, Ontario, gas continued to pass into the isolated segment of pipeline for a total of six hours.”

The Council of Canadians isn’t the only organization to express misgivings about TransCanada and its pipeline safety record. One of B.C.’s most respected environmental organizations is also voicing concern.

“A natural gas pipeline operated by TransCanada exploded and caught fire in Manitoba in January (2014),” noted Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director for the Sierra Club, in a recent interview. “Is that their definition of safe?”

While critical of TransCanada’s safety record, Vernon suggests members of the public should be concerned about more than just leaks and explosions along the company’s proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline. Even if the line never ruptures, she says it will have a damaging impact on the province.

“Climate change is already impacting B.C.’s economy, with bark beetle and wildfires and ski hills cloing early,” she stated. “Keeping our communities safe and secure means defending the quality of our drinking water and doing something about climate change. This proposed pipeline would take us in the opposite direction, impacting our water and leading to more extreme weather impacts from climate change.

“The pipeline would have significant environmental impacts, whether or not there is a rupture. The habitat loss along the pipeline route, tankers on the coast, impacts on water quality from fracking in B.C.’s northeast, and climate pollution associated with this project mean that we will all be impacted, wherever we live.”

Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of TransCanada PipeLines Ltd., hopes to build a 670-km natural gas pipeline from the Dawson Creek area in Northeastern BC to LNG Canada’s proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant near Kitimat. The project will result in a section of the 48-inch-diameter pipeline being constructed south of Burns Lake, passing under Hwy. 35 near Bald Hill Road.

Coastal GasLink officials insist the $4.7 billion project will benefit B.C. by creating up to 2500 jobs during construction.