Converting gas pipe to tarsands is unproven process

By Tom Cook

First published in The Chronicle Journal January 21, 2017

The proposed Energy East pipeline is to carry tarsands bitumen 4,500 kilometres from Alberta to New Brunswick for export. Of this, approximately 3,000 kilometres will be 50- to 60-year-old natural gas pipeline through Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario to Cornwall. There will be new sections in Alberta and from Cornwall to New Brunswick.I have several reasons to be concerned with the 3,000-kilometre old section.

First, it’s been buried in the ground since 1954 or so. To me that looks like 60 years. How do we know that it’s not all rusted on the outside?

Second, it was made to carry a gas, not a liquid. To transport bitumen which is full of sand, thinned 25 per cent with lighter gases like naphtha and benzene, so it will flow, is a whole different thing.

My research also shows that the weight of this bitumen is approximately 2,000 pounds per yard or 2,200 pounds per metre of 42-inch pipe.
There is no 42-inch pipeline anywhere in North America. They are usually 24, 30 and 36 inches in diameter. But TransCanada is willing to gamble that this 50- to 60-year-old 42-inch pipe will withstand the stress of conversion to heavy tar bitumen when there is no experience doing it. They can only speculate on how to clean up the mess if it should break.

According to the National Energy Board, TransCanada PipeLines has the worst safety record in Canada. Based on its “rupture record,” the Energy East pipeline will experience a 15-per-cent chance of a major rupture each year.

Let’s look at pipeline leaks. TransCanada claims to have an excellent (remote) leak detection system which can detect 98.5 per cent of all leaks. This system is monitored in Calgary. If a suspected leak is detected by an operator, this person has 10 minutes in which to decide if it is really a leak or just a glitch in the system. Imagine the pressure he/she is under. If the operator guesses wrong, it would cost the company millions.

Even if he/she decides to shut down the pipeline because they believe it is a leak, it doesn’t happen instantly — it takes 22 minutes to shut down the pipeline.

The Energy East pipeline will push 1.1 million barrels a day. This means that at any point, 33,000 litres of oil per minute is passing any one place.

If that place is a break, then 33,000 litres times 22 minutes makes a great big leak.

And what about the 1.5 per cent of the daily flow that the leak detection system is unable to “see”?

In a pipeline the size of the Energy East, 1.5 per cent works out to 15 railway tanker cars of oil that can spill every day without detection. That’s a lot of sticky, tarry bitumen in our environment.

Have a look at the land this pipeline is passing through, and imagine even a small spill in some of these locations. This video is a flyover view of the pipeline route east to west in Ontario. The vertical red lines indicate a water crossing, the thick white lines indicate a 15-kilometre impact zone each side of the pipeline as noted by TransCanada. Have a look — make up your own mind.

Tom Cook
Thunder Bay