Behind Enbridge’s mishaps: The alarming reality of pipeline safety

It took controllers in Edmonton 17 hours to turn off the flow of an oil spill in Michigan

The alarming reality of pipeline safety


See also Signals Noise and Eco-Disaster at Enbridge

A million gallons. That’s the bottom line, give or take a few per cent, when it comes to Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B leak of July 26, 2010: a million gallons of diluted bitumen, blorping through a weak spot in the pipeline and burbling its way into a tributary of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. In the U.S., the National Transportation Safety Board—the same agency that handles plane crashes—investigates major oil pipeline accidents. The NTSB is preparing its final report into the 6B incident for public release, but agency chairman Deborah Hersman has already compared the pipeline company’s response to the silent-cinema antics of the Keystone Cops.

It may have been the city of Marshall, Mich., that suffered as dilbit spurted into Talmadge Creek, but the real problem that needed fixing was 2,500 km away, in Edmonton. It was 17 hours before Enbridge controllers in Edmonton—tired, young, inexperienced pipeline controllers working in a somewhat dysfunctional environment—finally stopped ramming the oil through.

How would oil pipeline operators know there was a leak somewhere in their system? The answer is hard to extract, even after a week’s reading, from the various interviews and scientific reports the NTSB produced. Under normal circumstances, it is done just the way one might expect: you observe pressure in the line downstream, indicating that there is oil flowing in the direction of travel, but little or no pressure upstream. If this condition exists for more than a brief moment, the controller is supposed to shut everything down until the problem is located.

But there’s a wrinkle. Shutdowns for maintenance can result in “column separations”—situations in which the oil is no longer one continuous flow through the line, but instead consists of pockets of liquid separated by air and other gases. Column separations are common and, when there has been a shutdown, are anticipated. Yet they cause the same pressure imbalances and trip the same alarms that a leak would. Under those circumstances, it seems from the evidence of the NTSB investigation, controllers simply ignore those alarms.

That led to disaster on the evening of the 6B leak, when there was a planned maintenance shutdown of the section that had either just ruptured or was about to. When the downstream pressure didn’t come back upon restart, the controller in charge and the person handling “material balance” agreed that it was probably a typical case of “column sep.” The control room shut down 6B again and restarted again, without success. Meanwhile, a shift change put Enbridge’s real-time diagnostic process pretty much back to square one. Eventually, Enbridge started getting panicky phone calls from an American utility company, Consumers Energy, whose Michigan consumers were reporting a funny smell.

It is surprising, to say the least, to learn that Enbridge didn’t have a system for leak detection as such—not, that is, until dilbit started splashing onto someone’s boots a couple of thousand miles from the control room. What Enbridge had, instead, was a system for detecting pressure anomalies. That system, in essence, sent out hundreds of “column sep” alarms for every “oil is flowing out onto a frigging ecosystem at a higher-than-optimum rate, and oh by the way the optimum is zero” alarm. The company has modified its doctrines as a consequence of the 6B leak, and takes the alarms more seriously now. Taking the alarms seriously won’t help if they are as non-specific as ever. But clearly there is a lot of remedial action happening within Enbridge, and they gave NTSB investigators an appearance of earnestness.

It bears remembering that Enbridge has spent over a half-billion dollars on cleanup of the Kalamazoo spill. This isn’t a problem of economic “externalities” of the sort often complained about when it comes to the oil economy. The externalities, in this case, have been internalized right down Enbridge’s throat. Moreover, pipelines in general have to be judged against the alternatives to having pipelines. In some cases, those alternatives may have worse environmental effects than spills like the one that Enbridge’s ham-handedness and bad luck caused.

But one can’t help feeling queasily grateful that the 6B rupture did happen in Michigan, in a part of the world where a smell of oil spreads to a human habitat sooner rather than later, and where well-equipped cleanup crews can start work quickly. That doesn’t inspire confidence in the very different proposition that is Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Canada’s West Coast. The NTSB’s final report is going to be read closely in Canada—very closely, by thousands of people on both the “drill baby drill” side of the new Canadian political spectrum and the “if God meant us to dig, our hands would be garden weasels” side.

See also Signals Noise and Eco-Disaster at Enbridge


Behind Enbridge’s mishaps: The alarming reality of pipeline safety

  1. The problem, of course, is that until environmental damage has an agreed-upon and enforceable “cost”..it will never be applied against the bottom line of a proposed project. And thus, companies will see “best case scenario” profits as realistic, especially when they have friends in government who assure them that the tax payer won’t complain about spills/clean-up costs..because if they do….the threats of closing down companies and off-shoring will emerge to frighten them back in line… after all…we are all just hewers of wood and drawers of water…

    Never mind the whole “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” mentality that seems to be the business strategy of the day for resource companies.

    In essence: until we can take back control of Canada’s resources from the greedy few who are systematically selling them off at fire sale prices (to their personal benefit), we will not see Canada move forward. We are slipping into the realm of fascism in Canada, and it isn’t the nationalistic, xenophobic kind that one could argue as a good thing for Canada. No, this feels more like foreign-owned fascism, the kind seen in puppet states controlled by larger nations (in order to get their resources cheaper)… I’ll leave the conclusions as to who Canada’s puppeteer is for you to guess…

    • Their decision trees and NPV formulas all assume some sort of financial risk caused by future accidents. That said, it’s certainly unlikely that they accounted for the full cost of a disaster. I’d bet that BP didn’t carry $10 billion worth of risk into their Gulf of Mexico drilling program, and that the Keystone pipeline financials didn’t carry $500 million worth of risk when Enbridge calculated it’s capital and operational costs. I wonder how much value they’ve assigned the risk of a rupture on the Northern Gateway?

      • Insurance – spreads the risk across the company’s operations, and across industry. Doubtful, on projects of this nature, companies would “self-ensure”. Depends on the terms of the insurance agreements, tho.

        • Ya, I suppose that would be added into the operational costs when figuring out NPV. I wonder if their rates jumped after the Kalamazoo spill?

          • You could also do it in NPV. But then you’d need to assign it a probability before discounting (which essentially is what insurance does).

    • Quebec Environment Minister in favour of bulk water exports.

      During a conference organized by the Centre international Unisféra de Montréal, Quebec Environment Minister Thomas Mulcair declared that he was in favour of reviving the debate over bulk water exports from Quebec. According to Mr. Mulcair, it is time to begin thinking of Quebec’s economic interests in matters related to water export.

      A debate and a commission of enquiry took place five years ago concerning this subject. After reviewing some 400 reports, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement(BAPE) concluded that bulk water exports should not take place. The Quebec National Assembly adopted a law in 2001 banning bulk water export by truck, train, ship or pipeline. Thus, water could not be considered as merchandise according to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Quebec would not be obliged to share this resource with foreign interests.

      Now, Minister Mulcair is convinced that this law deprives Quebec of millions of dollars in revenue: “…as long as we lose nothing environmentally, if I can bring in billions of dollars with water, without affecting aquatic ecosystems, why should I deprive us–by following a dogma–of the possibility of major economic activity?” declared the minister. He also maintained that concerns about NAFTA are unfounded and that bulk water exports would create jobs in the outlying regions of the province. Furthermore, he added that he would never place Quebec in a position where the resource would be threatened.

      A large portion of the population, including environmental groups and the opposition party, are opposed to this statement. Concern remains that massive water withdrawals could reduce the provinces ability to counter disruptions such as those resulting from climate change, affect navigation, render certain municipal water supplies inoperative and, finally, considerably modify aquatic and waterside ecosystems. [Le Devoir, Whales Online]

      MONTREAL — Rio Tinto Alcan is expected to take a $100 million (U.S.) hit to its operating income in the second half of 2010 because of low snow and rain levels in Quebec.

      Low water levels and other factors have constrained Rio Tinto’s ability to produce power for its Quebec smelters, forcing it to buy more electricity than normal or curtail output.

      The aluminum division of the London-based mining giant will need to buy more electricity from Hydro-Quebec, the provincial Crown-owned utility.

      Information released by the company doesn’t break out exactly how much it will pay for higher energy purchases from Hydro-Quebec.

      Rio’s aluminum smelters are located mainly in the Saguenay region of northeastern Quebec, which has faced the warmest winter in 50 years, cutting the amount of snowfall and affecting the spring snow melt and the flow of rushing rivers.

      The area has been able to attract producers because of the abundance of low-cost hydroelectric power, which is essential for producing aluminum.

      There were 176 millimetres of precipitation at all its Quebec reservoirs between Dec. 1 and March 31, representing 82 per cent of the normal winter total. It was the driest winter since 2002 and the ninth worst in 57 years.

      Temperatures were nearly five degrees warmer than normal at—9.9 C making it the warmest winter since 1957.

      Since 2002, Rio Tinto Alcan has generated on average 2,100 megawatts of electricity annually and bought 159 MW from Hydro-Quebec to help run its smelters.

      It bought 116 MW last year, but 280 MW in 2007 during the last dry spell.

      Rio Tinto, which pays low electricity costs under a secret contract with Hydro-Quebec, doesn’t disclose the possible cost of higher energy purchases alone.

      The Anglo-Australian company company said Wednesday that its total aluminum production should fall slightly to 3.7 million tonnes in 2010.

      Production in the second quarter was one per cent higher than last year and two per cent higher than the first quarter.

      Rio Tinto’s Laterriere plant is operating at half capacity after two transformer explosions cut power to the Quebec smelter.

      Overall, Canadian aluminum production decreased about two per cent to 422,400 tonnes in the second quarter compared to a year ago. Production fell to 840,000 tonnes in the first half, primarily because of the closure of the smelter at Beauharnois and less production in Kitimat, B.C.

      Meanwhile, Rio Tinto Group PLC said iron ore production, the key component in steel production, is expected to be about 234 million tonnes in 2010 in Australia and Canada.

      A higher pellet-to-concentrate fine product ratio at the Rio Tinto-controlled Iron Ore Co. of Canada in the second quarter resulted in nine per cent lower total tonnes produced because of weight loss in the transformation process.

      Iron Ore Co. operates a mine, concentrator and a pelletizing plant in Labrador City, NL as well as a port in Sept-Iles, Que. The company also operates a 418-kilometre railway that links the mine to the port and employs about 1,700 people.

      The company is also 15.1 per cent owned by Labrador Iron Ore Royalty Corp.

      Second quarter production of pellets were 55 per cent higher than a year earlier, following a return to full capacity with all six pellet furnaces in production. The increase led to a 60 per cent declined in second quarter concentrate production.

      Rio Tinto reported that iron ore, the key component in steel production, reached 43.4 million tonnes in the first three months of this year. That compares with 31.2 million a year earlier.

  2. How does Mother Nature manage naturally-occurring oil seepage? Every year, oil twice the volume of the Exxon Valdez’s spill seeps naturally from the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico, disperses and breaks down.

    There are many marine bacteria species belonging to genera including Alcanivorax, Marinobacter, Thallassolituus, Cycloclasticus, and Oleispira, which have been studied for their capability in oil degradation. While dormant without hydrocarbon sources, studies indicate that their metabolisms slow and subsist on stored lipids. While in the presence of hydrocarbons, they flourish.
    So, as oil naturally seeps into the Gulf of Mexico, how is that oil naturally dispersed and decomposed? First of all, the oil slick disperses itself over wider and wider areas until it is so thin that it almost undetectable. As winds drive surface mixing, they also provide an oxygen rich environment. Then, naturally occurring bacteria consume the oil, leaving carbon dioxide and sea foam as byproducts.

    These hydrocarbonoclastic, or hydrocarbon-loving, bacteria provide an avenue for the natural remediation of crude oil. The bacteria occur naturally in both soil and marine environments, and are found all over the world’s oceans. 

    Here is a video demonstrating emergency clean up of one that has had a close encounter with a bio-degradable decomposing organic substance


    • Off topic. Nevertheless, nice cut and paste job. I believe it’s referred to as “plagiarism.”

      Remember Ecotruth, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

      • Ouch! Y’know Ecotruth, if you play with a hot piano, you’re going to get your fingers burnt

        • LOL I thought I was using a qwerty keyboard manufactured from organic hydrocarbons, not tickling the ivories. Last century the National Socialist Workers Party, and the Taliban got their fingers burnt with their attempts to destroy any written literature that spoke the truth about matters of concern for civilization continuing pathway forward.

          This Century it appears attempted censorship of true scientific, and historical facts by a handful of malcontents are rallying in Canada under orange, and green banners which when when combined on the palette of political ideologies makes the color brown which also happened to be the color of both aforementioned 20th Century groups of book burners.

      • Thank you for adding the missing link, I missed putting quotation marks. The author, and their company definitely needs recognition for their scientific work within a globally estimated $30 trillion environmental damage remedial systems industry. B

        Being non government controlled scientists is proof that the Darwinism theory of economics works well.
        I found it educational what they wrote about the Valdez incident it helped explain why there was a record fish run of at least 46 million pink salmon in Prince William Sound after the unfortunate, but not the end of the world spill. Sometimes true science is a little boring for some especially if does not support their preconceived conclusion.
        Please pass around the California Wildlife video so people that are passionate about the environment may donate there is information at the end of the video explain how to, and why they rely on donations. Obviously a bottle of dish detergent is not very expensive but bathing the squirrel looked labour intensive by frontline workers that do not rely on government handouts.
        Here’s the link to the pink salmon informationwww.iosc.org/papers_posters/01908.pd

    • pwned!!!!!! Ecotruth won’t be getting back up after that one folks.

      • Haha the only concerns I have is that the reference materials I post are 1) verifiable and 2) is there additional documentation accessible in the public domain supporting their research. From what true scientists have thus far discovered, researched and publicly proven that there are methods of cleaning up spilled hydrocarbons naturally, as well as mechanically. The root cause of our species pollution with the use of hydrocarbons is not the naturally occurring products themselves, it is the chemical reactions that are exhausted when we burn them with 20th Century technologies.

  3. Keystone Kops, not Cops, I believe.

    I didn’t mention this in your similar blog entry, but I think you have your normal operating pressures logic backwards.

    (Removing the effect of differences in elevation) for a liquid or gas to flow in a pipeline, the upstream pressure needs to be *higher* than the downstream pressure (the difference is friction loss) to *push* the liquid (think of a garden hose).

    If there is a break /leak between two measurement points (upstream and downstream of the break) both will drop – less pressure required upstream because some percentage of the volume is leaking to the environment (where ambient gauge pressure is zero) and hence less pressure/flow to downstream pressure point as well. The size of the pressure drop will depend upon the size of the leak, and the volumes being pumped.

    A picky point – not relevant to the gist of the story. Well done.

  4. How about this as an idea; if there is a spill, the company executives are required to stand in a massive empty pool as it is filled with as much oil that was released at the speed it was released…. provide them with some real damn incentives.

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