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Here’s What Caused a Pipeline Rupture That Blasted a Huge Crater in the Alberta Oil Sands

The pipeline is owned by TransCanada, the same company that wants to build the longest pipeline in North America, known as Energy East.

by Hilary Beaumont
Nov 12 2015, 4:38pm

Trans-Alaska pipeline system via Flickr Creative Commons

In October 2013, a TransCanada natural gas pipeline near Fort McMurray, Alberta ruptured, projecting pieces of pipeline 130 meters away, and blasting a 50-meter-long crater in the ground. Now, an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has found the company was operating the pipeline over its design limits because of a miscommunication at the time the pipeline was built.

TransCanada, which was dealt a blow last week by US President Barack Obama's rejection of its Keystone XL project, said it will use the 2013 pipeline incident as a "learning opportunity."

The company is hoping to build the longest proposed pipeline in North America, known as Energy East, but the project has yet to be approved by the National Energy Board (NEB).

Unlike the giant fireball that erupted from a TransCanada pipeline in southern Manitoba in 2014, the natural gas that escaped from the North Central Corridor (NCC) pipeline did not ignite, according to the TSB report released last week. And unlike the Manitoba line, which was half a century old, the NCC line was not even five years old when it ruptured.

Built in 2008, the 300-kilometer pipeline cut through the Lubicon Cree First Nation, though indigenous residents opposed it. The line began carrying natural gas in the spring of 2009.

Related: Whistleblowers Think They Know Why Canadian Pipelines Are Exploding

The TSB investigation into the rupture found that in the 50 days leading up to the NCC line rupture, the pipeline had been operating at a temperature between 42 and 48 degrees Celsius — but it was never designed to operate at such a high heat. The contractor hired by TransCanada had tested it using a maximum temperature of 45 degrees Celsius when it actually should have been tested at 58 degrees Celsius.

According to the report, the person or persons responsible for the mistake never communicated the problem during the design process, so "the design did not properly account for the threat of thermal expansion." TransCanada did not catch the mistake. The TSB can only investigate what occurred and it's up to the NEB to decide if any further enforcement action is required. 

The rupture stopped the flow of natural gas to two oil sands companies who use the gas to produce bitumen and convert it into crude, according to the Financial Post.

No one was hurt. The closest residence, other than a nearby hunting cabin, was 50 kilometers away.

The rupture took place on traditional Cree territory, and nearby First Nations were notified.

"It's exactly for these reasons that the Lubicon Cree opposed this pipeline, because we knew there are devastating impacts to the land due to these explosions, especially natural gas," Greenpeace campaigner and member of the First Nation Melina Laboucan-Massimo said.

"Because it's a volatile gas, the explosions are what's really scary."

"We knew there would be possible dangers associated with the construction of the pipeline," she said. "It just shows that for good reason our nation was concerned."

"These are dangerous pipelines, it's dangerous when they're running beyond their limits … that's a scary thing."

Related: More People Are Blowing the Whistle on Oil Companies in Canada

Following the NCC rupture, TransCanada took nine safety actions, including checking the pipeline for deformations, adding wrap to the pipeline to increase its yield strength, developing a model to assess thermal expansion, and initiating a research program to improve quality assurance.

The NCC line was also the subject of allegations by a TransCanada employee who blew the whistle on the company to the NEB in September 2014. He made 16 allegations about the company not following the rules, and the NEB found six of those allegations were partially substantiated. But the NEB could not find evidence to back up his four allegations about the NCC line.

More than 300 "reportable incidents," including ruptures, leaks, fires, explosions, serious injuries and one death, have occurred at TransCanada-owned facilities since 2008, according to NEB data.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont 

Image via Flickr user rickz