Pipeline Safety In Canada

Kevin Olson, Director - Pipelines | Energy & Chemicals | Fluor Corporation
Matthew Hunt, Director - Pipeline Construction | Energy & Chemicals | Fluor Corporation

The perception of pipelines in the realm of public opinion has shifted drastically over the last two decades. While pipelines are critical infrastructure for daily transport of everything from water to natural gas to crude oil, they have also become a lightning rod for many issues such as land claim concerns, environmental impacts, climate change, and public safety. For a long time, pipelines would make headline news if there was a significant incident or if it was a focal point of international politics, such as the recent cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

More recently, Canadian pipeline news has focused on specific projects such as the Trans Mountain Expansion, Energy East, Line 3, Coastal GasLink, and Keystone XL. Due to their role as the primary mode of hydrocarbon transportation, pipelines are naturally going to be part of the public discourse with consideration of reducing hydrocarbon consumption.

A specific component of that public discussion that is worth exploring is the aspect of pipeline safety. In consideration of the auxiliary issues related to pipeline project development, are the pipelines themselves safe? Should the public be concerned about living in close vicinity of pipelines? This article is meant to delve into this with a focus on four specific issues: pipeline incidents, pipeline design, pipeline construction, and pipeline integrity management.

Pipeline Incidents

Federal pipelines, those that cross provincial or international borders, fall under the regulatory monitoring of the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER). Pipelines within a single province fall under the jurisdiction of the relevant provincial body, which for Alberta is the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) is the body that investigates and reports on statistics related to pipeline incidents and accidents. Its website (Pipeline transportation occurrences in 2020 - Statistical Summary - Transportation Safety Board of Canada (bst-tsb.gc.ca) publicly reports on all incidents and accidents associated with federal pipeline transportation in Canada.

Although it is true that a very large pipeline release can have significant, adverse effects on the public and the environment, those incidents are exceedingly rare. With regards to fatalities, the TSB website itself states “Indeed, there have been no fatal accidents on a federally regulated pipeline system directly resulting from the operation of a pipeline since the inception of the TSB in 1990.” The point is that pipeline incidents do occur, but they seldom result in harm to individuals, seldom result in large volume releases, and seldom result in environmental damage.

Studies have been issued that support the fact that pipelines are the safest and most economical mode of transportation for hydrocarbons, which is also true for other commodities such as water. Although nothing is 100 per cent safe, and incidents can occur, pipeline safety should not be a cause of concern in day-to-day life.

Pipeline Design

Pipelines are designed to the requirements of specific design codes. Design codes are a set of rules that guide engineers, designers, and constructors on how to design and build pipelines in a way that best ensures public safety. These are also the rules that regulators use to ensure pipeline owners are meeting a consistent standard for pipeline installations. In Canada, the primary code for pipeline design is CSA Z662. This set of design rules considers factors such as pipeline location, the fluid the pipeline will be transporting, the materials of construction, design life and several other factors to ensure that the final installation is safe. Aside from the pipeline itself, major transmission pipelines also incorporate leak detection technology to allow operators to respond and shut pipelines down in the event of a detected leak.

Although design mistakes can be made, when the design code is coupled with due diligence requirements established by organizations that govern professional practice such as APEGA and APEGBC (and there is a strong history of comprehensive pipeline design), these mistakes are rarely the root cause of pipeline failures. The design process is also advancing and improving through the utilization of geomatics for route selection, continuous research and improvements in material specifications, and improved integration between the various stakeholders throughout the design stage.

Pipeline Construction

Thousands of kilometres of pipelines have been built in Canada from very small pipelines servicing people’s homes, to very large pipelines up to 48” in diameter that transport natural gas across the country. Pipeline constructors utilize a package of certified drawings and standards developed through the design stage and follow a stringent quality management process, along with employing a series of inspectors monitoring every stage of construction to ensure compliance with design and regulatory requirements. Construction standards and practices have advanced significantly over the years to address issues such as stress corrosion cracking, geohazard mitigation, and improved productivity. Much of the construction process has become less intrusive through techniques such as horizontal directional drilling. They have also become more automated through automatic welding processes and GPS guided survey and excavation equipment.

Pipeline Integrity Management

Once pipelines are in service, it becomes the responsibility of the pipeline owners to ensure their assets are managed effectively. Integrity management includes a range of monitoring activities, but a critical component of managing larger pipelines is utilization of intelligent monitoring tools that travel through the inside of the pipelines. Commonly known as “smart pigs”, these tools take measurements and check for indications that could compromise integrity and lead to a failure such as dents, cracks, general corrosion, etc. Once identified, integrity digs may be completed to attain a visual indication of the issue and to allow for repairs.

CSA Z662 includes guidelines that pipeline owners are expected to follow when developing an integrity management plan. There are multiple components of these plans, but the plans themselves are effectively built around the inherent risks associated with a particular pipeline. This risk evaluation will result in helping establish inspection frequencies, the types of integrity risks that may be present, and the right tools and expertise required to monitor them.

Due to changing climate conditions, integrity risks that are becoming more prevalent in Canada are associated with geotechnical hazards such as slope instability, flooding, landslides, and melting permafrost. Integrity management plans often include the need to monitor ground movement, aside from the pipelines themselves, to determine if pipeline stresses are increasing to the point that damage or loss of containment may be a potential hazard. Given that pipelines may have service lives of greater than 50 years, integrity management plans need to be continuously assessed and updated to address new threats that may not have existed when the asset was built.

In conclusion, pipelines continue to be a common topic with politicians, news outlets, and special interest groups that may be impacted by the physical construction or economic impacts of such infrastructure. Pipelines are virtually everywhere and generally operate without incident for decades. Pipelines have a long history of successful operation due to strong standards around the design, construction, and integrity management of pipelines in Canada, and as such are much safer than any other form of transportation for hydrocarbons. In reviewing issues related to pipeline development, the idea that pipelines are inherently unsafe should be carefully considered as historical data does not support this position. Pipelines can be safely designed, constructed, and operated for decades without incident.

  • Sections:
  • ESG

Dear user, please be aware that we use cookies to help users navigate our website content and to help us understand how we can improve the user experience. If you have ideas for how we can improve our services, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to email us. By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies. Please see our Privacy & Cookie Usage Policy to learn more.