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Pour This Story Down Your Pipeline  

author: Orland French

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Beer, water, molasses, sewage, ammonia – pipelines carry much more than oil and gas. Yet their transportation of energy products, Line 9 included, is what gets people in a knot

Once upon a time a keg of beer, a barrel of oil and a pig walked into a pipeline. While this may seem an unlikely adventure, stick with me as I use this simple tale to explore the complex world of pipelines.

First, the barrel of beer.

When the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges, Belgium, began to pump beer through a pipeline in September, 2016, the world pulled up a barstool, ordered a Brugse Zot Blond and asked for more details.

Pumping beer through a pipeline? Who knew that refreshing foodstuffs could be piped underground? We’re so caught up in fighting battles over the pros and cons of oil and gas pipelines that we forget these underground conduits have other uses too.

We all know about water pipelines. But beer? When the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery announced plans to build a three-kilometre-long pipeline, it was addressing a practical problem: its brewery is located on a centuries-old brewing site within the old city, while its bottling plant is on the edge of town. The two locations meant huge beer tankers had to manoeuvre their way through the narrow streets of Bruges from brewery to bottle station.

In North America, we might simply have moved the brewery to the bottling plant. But Bruges is an historic old city, now a favourite visiting point for 6.5 million tourists a year. The brewery, the last of several dozen, is part of its history. With the pipeline, visitors will be able to see beer running beneath the streets, thanks to a transparent plate in the pavement.

Pipelines are versatile. Every town and city has an underground water system; sometimes hot water or steam is transported by pipe. Then there are the messier, less innocuous items: notably sewage, slurry, oil, natural gas, gasoline and even more dangerous materials, such as hydrogen and highly toxic ammonia. Few people would complain about the possibility of an underground beer spill, but they do get agitated about transporting more volatile and environmentally dangerous substances.

Even stored-up foodstuffs can be dangerous if unleashed; In the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, a molasses storage tank burst, releasing a wave of molasses that flowed through the streets of Boston at 55 km per hour. Twenty-one people were killed, 150 injured and numerous horses, dogs and other creatures were entrapped in one huge sticky mess. The story gives lie to the expression “slow as molasses”. It also brings to mind references to Alberta oil sands bitumen as being “as thick as molasses” unless it is diluted with some chemical to allow it to slide through pipelines more easily. The short form is dilbit, meaning diluted bitumen.

This brings us to the barrel of oil – sticky and environmentally degrading if it escapes. Nobody wants an oil spill in their backyard.

For readers of Watershed, the district along the north shore of Lake Ontario is the backyard. No oil or gas products are produced from the rolling hills and drumlins left behind by glaciers. But the region is a major geographic conduit between major consuming cities (Montreal and Toronto) and major sources of oil (western Canada and midwestern United States) and offshore customers.

The most recent controversial pipeline issue in this area, indeed for all of Ontario along the route, has been the reversal of Line 9, owned by Enbridge Inc. Line 9 is not a new pipeline, and no new pipeline was installed as part of the reversal process. It was built in 1976 from Windsor to Quebec to feed western Canadian oil to refineries in Montreal. Until that time, Quebec and eastern refineries had been importing low-cost oil from abroad, but the spike in world oil prices in the 1970s meant that Canadian oil had become cheaper. The line was built to be reversible, so oil could flow either way, depending on the whims of the world’s oil markets.

And, indeed, reversals have happened. In the 1990s Enbridge switched the flow to transport cheaper eastern oil to Ontario refineries. The most recent reversal is designed to carry oil from Windsor to Montreal to fill orders from Quebec refineries and provide a route for Alberta oil to the sea.

The latest change wasn’t simply a reversal of flow. Enbridge also wanted to carry oil sands bitumen, and more of it, to the eastern market. It requested an increase in capacity to 300,000 barrels a day from 240,000. This was approved by the National Energy Board, with 30 conditions attached, relating to public safety, environmental protection and improved consultation processes between the company, landowners and Aboriginal peoples. Oil began to flow eastward through the line in late 2015.

The reversal of Line 9 drew criticism for two major reasons. The first was a fear of spillages because of increased pressure and content within the pipeline. This was fuelled by concern that the diluted bitumen (dilbit) oil from the so-called dirty oil sands in Alberta might be abrasive and erode the walls of the pipeline and its pumping machinery.

The second reason was that any oil or gas pipeline proposal today automatically draws criticism from people who believe we should be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and turning to renewable energies. It is ironic that protestors sometimes drive themselves to demonstrations and rallies in vehicles that burn fossil fuels that may have been transported in the very pipeline they are protesting. (That sentence in itself will draw protests.)

In truth, it does seem somewhat at cross-purposes to be trying to lower fossil-fuel emissions while building more pipelines to carry the fuels that create those emissions.

No one is sure who built the first oil pipeline. Wikipedia will tell you two claimants are (1) the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company that was moving oil near Baku on the Caspian Sea in the later 19th century, and (2) the Oil Transport Association that built a 9.7 km pipeline in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania in the 1860s. However, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association has a marvellously illustrated website (aboutpipelines.com) that disputes those dates. It says the first Canadian transmission pipe­line was built in 1853, which would predate either of the other Ivan-Come-Latelies. It carried natural gas to Trois-Rivières. Then in 1862, one of the world’s first oil pipelines was built to carry oil from the Petrolia oilfield in Petrolia, Ontario, to Sarnia. By 1947, three oil pipelines were carrying oil in Canada: from Turner Valley, Alberta to Calgary, from coastal Maine to Montreal and from the U.S. to Ontario.

In the early days of gas and oil transmission, real or potential damage to the environment was not a major public issue. Industries planted themselves where they wanted and dumped poisons into the water systems with impunity, all in the interest of prosperity. One of the earliest loud disputes over pipeline construction took place in Parliament in 1956. But it wasn’t about the environment, or Native rights, or disruptive activities. It was about American interests receiving government loans to build a natural gas pipeline from Alberta to eastern Canada, in part through the U.S. The Progressive Conservative opposition party objected to majority American ownership of the project, while the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now New Democratic Party) wanted total Canadian ownership. An explosive and fiery atmosphere disrupted the House of Commons, but eventually the Liberal government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent prevailed and backed the construction of the TransCanada pipeline. There was a cost: in the federal election of 1957 the Liberals were defeated.

TransCanada still exists. Its Canadian Mainline pipeline runs through the area north of Lake Ontario. At the moment it is proposing a second pipeline affecting the Watershed region, its Eastern Mainline Project. The proposal is currently working its way through the normal application-and-review process of the National Energy Board. This project would build a new 36-inch pipeline from Markham to a point near Iroquois, and add nine new compressor stations to the existing five, those at Bowmanville, Cobourg (Grafton), Belleville, Kingston and Brockville. The route would follow the right-of-way of the existing pipeline. Construction is proposed to begin in 2018 and be completed by 2020.

As pipelines age and safety regulations stiffen, companies spend a lot of money and effort to ensure their infrastructure is secure. Take Enbridge’s Line 9, for example. It was built of quarter inch steel with the best of technology to standards of the time, 50 years ago. And how do we know what a 50-year-old buried pipeline looks like? Every once in a while a pig passes through, looking for trouble.

Enter the pig, please. This is not your ordinary porker. It doesn’t even look like a pig. It’s a round machine, sort of a barrel-shaped piece of equipment matching the diameter of the line, dispatched through a pipeline to conduct any number of tasks. The more complex pigs are variable and expand or collapse like an umbrella to match different diameters within the same pipeline. Some pigs clean the interior of the pipeline, some measure the gauge of the pipeline, looking for variations in diameter or obstructions. Some inspect the pipeline for corrosion, cracks, pinholes or weaknesses in the wall. If you want to see what a pig looks like, go online to websites like Apache Pipeline Products, a company based in Edmonton, Alberta, or T.D. Williamson.

The earliest pigs were rudimentary devices, consisting of straw wrapped in wire and used for cleaning. According to Wikipedia, the wire scraping on the metal pipe sounded like an animal squealing, hence the nickname pig. The word is also an anagram for Pipeline Inspection Gauge or Pipeline Intervention Gadget. The first “intelligent” pig was operated in the 1960s to demonstrate that it could sense wall integrity. This device is of immense value to the pipeline industry because it can forecast and catch problems before the pipeline leaks or blows.

If the pipeline easement crosses your property, you may view a pig-discovered problem with mixed emotions. The bad news is that the pipeline company is going to conduct an integrity dig and create a mess. Equally, the good news is that the pipeline company is going to conduct an integrity dig to prevent an oil spill.

Pipeline proximity to occupied property is one of the concerns of protestors. Activists are quick to point out any number of nearby seniors’ apartments, hospitals, high-rises, schools and other centres of concentrated human activity. Patients in Belleville General Hospital can amuse themselves by counting the oil cars on the CP trains outside their windows.

A favourite protest site is the Finch subway station in Toronto, where Line 9 runs 60 cm above the subway structure. Protesters usually stage their demonstrations at the site of what they see as potentially disastrous spills, but the locations of high-traffic human centres built after the pipeline suggest that municipal authorities were perhaps remiss in protecting public safety.

The real target of protestors today is the development of the Alberta oil/tar sands and the Bakken fracturing processes in the Midwest. (Oil sands and tar sands are the same thing. Which term you use depends on how you view the topic: oil sands are a profitable productive commodity which should be exploited, while tar sands are a potential blight on the environment and should be left alone. Your choice, depending on whether you carry a picket sign.)

Pipeline companies are gearing up for major clashes. Recently activists tried to shut down five pipelines carrying Canadian oil sands crude into the U.S. Kinder Morgan Canada says it is expecting major environmental protests if its Trans Mountain project is approved.

Environmental protests, whether on the ground or in the courts, have been effective in slowing down pipeline developments and causing government regulatory bodies to take a closer look at the proposals. But oil flows a little bit like water – stick your finger in the dike here to stop a leak, and the liquid forces its way through somewhere else.

The prime alternative to moving oil by pipeline is hauling it by rail. But the danger rating goes up. According to a study by the Fraser Institute, trains are 4.5 times as likely to have a spill as pipelines. Truck spill statistics are even higher. The Institute also says that only 17% of pipeline “occurrences”, i.e. leaks, take place in actual line pipe, while the vast majority take place in pipeline facilities where the spill can be more easily contained. However, the 17% of oil lost under­ground may not be immediately detected, meaning that a much larger volume of oil might escape.

Oil and water don’t mix, and especially oil that spills into lakes and river systems. Pipelines buried under rivers can be reinforced to minimize chances of a break near an ecosystem. But what of the possibility of 100-unit oil trains plunging off viaducts or bridges across the Ganaraska, the Trent, the Moira or the Napanee rivers?

A report by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Products in 2014 documented the rapid increase in shipments of oil by rail. In 2010, Canadian railways used a little more than 4,000 cars to move 400,000 tonnes of fuel and crude oil. By 2014, those numbers had risen to nearly 18,000 cars carrying 1.3 million tonnes. Trains no longer consist of oil cars to be picked up and dropped off along the line; today they are 90 to 120 units long, loaded at source and driven to a single destination. You could drop off to sleep in your hospital bed, counting a train that long. The train that ignited Lac-Mégantic was one of those.

One aspect of the pipeline wars that has become clear is that energy companies pump out nearly as much information as they do oil. They’re quick to use the Internet to inform the public. Long accused of hiding information or releasing misleading information, the gas and oil industry and its component parts – transportation companies – are employing dozens of websites and traditional sources of printed publications to get their story out.

Then again, so are the protestors. They’re up against huge companies – Enbridge recently concluded a deal to take over Spectra Energy Corp. and acquire its North American natural gas pipeline network. Cost: $37 billion. So, are the protestors little Davids pitching pebbles at Big Oil’s Goliaths? Maybe. Maybe they have some financial assistance. Recently the Financial Post ran an article about how a group of American billionaires who had made their money in oil were trying to stop development of the tar/oil sands project. They decided to do it by funding the environmentalist movement that had already targeted the Canadian oil sands. Stop the pipelines, stop Canadian oil. Pawns of Big Business are we.

If it were only beer in pipelines, maybe we wouldn’t get ourselves so tangled in politics. But we would have a great number of very drunk pigs.



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carl wiens

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