Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion 'flying under the radar'

A portion of Kinder Morgan pipeline where it crosses the Fraser River in South Burnaby. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
A portion of Kinder Morgan pipeline where it crosses the Fraser River in South Burnaby.

The woman on the other line was concerned.

A Kamloops resident, she had called the office of Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart after participating in a telephone survey he had commissioned to gauge support for a potential twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

She said, “When you phoned, I pushed yes to support the pipeline, then I realized it passed through my backyard so now I want to vote no,” said Stewart, the New Democrats’ associate critic of natural resources.

It’s an anecdote that explains part of the concern over the proposal, for which Kinder Morgan has yet to officially make an application to the National Energy Board (NEB).

The Trans Mountain pipeline carries crude oil and finished oil products and runs between Edmonton and Burnaby, with a branch line to refineries in northern Washington State.

There’s little understanding of what expanding the pipeline means, with some people thinking it’s just a matter of installing pumps to increase capacity, Stewart said. In actual fact, such a project would require excavating the right-of-way where the pipeline runs, with a construction safety zone of about 300 feet, “which is like a four-lane highway.”

Stewart asked the NEB at hearings on the subject in Ottawa whether expropriation of additional land would be required. They replied that it’s “very rare,” he said, but most of the time in Canada, pipelines don’t run through densely populated urban areas.

But in Burnaby, the pipeline in the Forest Grove neighbourhood “passes within a few meters of co-ops in the area,” he said, noting that Kinder Morgan’s proposed twinned pipeline may not follow the same route as the existing one in some areas.

The fact the pipeline is underground and has been there as long as most people can remember, is part of the issue: people simply aren’t aware it’s there and what the potential impacts are if it’s expanded.

Danger of human error

The fact the pipeline that Kinder Morgan proposes to expand is in an existing right-of-way certainly appears to improve its chances of being approved by regulatory bodies, said Ben West, a campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, a non-profit environmental group.

“It seems to me like Kinder Morgan has been trying to sneak under the radar, basically, because they’ve got an existing pipeline in an existing right-of-way,” he said, which gives the company a “pretty attractive position.”

With Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in northern B.C. and TransCanada Pipeline’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal through the U.S. looking like they’re “in trouble,” West said, “I don’t think anybody is happier than [Kinder Morgan CEO and co-founder] Richard Kinder.”

The Wilderness Committee’s “goal is to shine a light on it,” he added.

When the organization went door-knocking in Burnaby, he said many residents were not aware that the Trans Mountain pipeline has already twinned sections to expand capacity in recent years.

The current discussion is to expand it from a current capacity of 300,000 barrels per day to 600,000 barrels daily, something that received strong support from export customers in a test of the market recently.

Map of Trans Mountain PipelineWest said that would result in a massive expansion of oil tanker traffic in Burrard Inlet. In 2005, the year Kinder Morgan bought the pipeline, it filled 22 tankers. That has since grown to up to 70 per year, with an estimate of 280 by 2015-2016. He noted that if the proposal goes ahead, it’s expected that supertankers will be used, that can each carry upwards of two million barrels of oil.

“Every additional tanker is a new threat of an oil spill,” said West, who noted that even double-hulled tankers have ruptured and spilled their contents.

Port Metro Vancouver is considering dredging Second Narrows to accommodate the larger ships with heavier loads. West added that Kinder Morgan would also require additional storage capacity at its tank farm if the pipeline expansion is approved.

As for newer pipeline technology and infrastructure being an improvement over that of decades ago, he said, “They’re definitely less bad, but there’s no such thing as safe because human error can make anything unsafe ... Human error is the No. 1 cause of oil spills.

“I think it’s to be expected there will be incidents,” said West.

“If you just look at the last month, there was the rupture at the storage tank on Sumas Mountain and then a week later there was an explosion at the other end of the pipeline that goes to the refinery in Washington state.”

Indeed, the NEB’s most recent report released in December states that in 2009 there were five pipeline ruptures in Canada, three in Ontario, one in Alberta and one in British Columbia. On average there are 1.9 ruptures on NEB-regulated pipelines each year.

There were 83 pipeline incidents reported to the NEB that year, nearly double the 10-year average of 45.1, and included the release of 7,837 barrels of liquid hydrocarbons.

A local example

Burnaby residents need look no further than the Westridge neighbourhood which had crude oil showered on it when the pipeline was ruptured in 2007 after a city contractor struck it during sewer line construction.

The incident highlighted the pipeline issue to city hall, said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, so the proposal has it concerned about direct issues involving possible land use and expropriation, emergency procedures, and safety and security of the pipeline.

It’s also concerned about the potential environmental impact, noting the Westridge spill is “minimal compared to the things that could happen.”

From an economic standpoint, “Canada is importing oil on the east coast and exporting oil on the west coast, that doesn’t make sense to a lot of Canadian people,” Corrigan said.

“We want to be energy self-sufficient,” he said, noting that there are concerns that Chevron, the Lower Mainland’s only refinery, could close and jobs could be lost.

“There’s a multitude of issues and most of it has yet to be discussed,” he said. “I think it’s flying under the radar right now, I think intentionally so.”

And without significant opposition to it, the National Energy Board is likely to approve it, said Corrigan, who has yet to form an official opinion until he learns more details, but “so far it’s not looking good.”

Corrigan said what’s worse is a seeming inequity between provinces.

“One of the biggest problems of being the corridor for Alberta oil is that Albertans make a lot of money out of this, and British Columbians take a lot of the potential environmental impacts but get very little out of it.”

Chevron a local supplier

Stewart said while some may not like having the Chevron refinery in North Burnaby, without it, we would be importing all our gasoline in the Lower Mainland.

And the fact that Chevron would have to compete with companies in China or elsewhere for an adequate supply of crude oil for its refinery could put that operation at risk, he said.

Ray Lord, spokesman for Chevron’s Burnaby refinery, said it supplies 30 per cent of the Lower Mainland’s transportation fuel, 25 per cent of its diesel and 40 per cent of the jet fuel used at Vancouver International Airport.

It is now the last of four original refineries in the region, after the other three companies decided to rely on their refineries in Alberta to supply the B.C. market.

Chevron employs 250 people at the refinery directly, plus an additional 100 to 200 specialized contractors and tradespeople, he said. If Chevron, whose only Canadian presence is in B.C., has to close its Burnaby refinery, the Lower Mainland’s fuel needs would have to be served by transporting it by pipeline from Alberta, or by truck, rail or ship from the U.S., Lord said.

Chevron’s refinery currently processes about 55,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

Lord noted that what it uses, conventional light sweet crude or synthetic crude, is different from the bitumen—a thicker product from one step earlier in the process that needs additives to allow it to flow in the pipeline—which is what’s being discussed as what would be headed to China through the twinned pipeline.

Chevron has been one of the original customers for the pipeline since it was built in the 1950s. “It is the significant source of our crude, in addition to other methods we could use to get crude oil in here to our refinery, which could include truck, rail and marine ships.”

As for talk that the expanded pipeline could, ironically, put Chevron’s crude supply at risk, Lord said, “The [company’s] interest is in the ongoing access to crude at prices that allow us to produce the products we do for our customers at competitive prices.”

Announcement in spring

For its part, Kinder Morgan Canada says it’s in the early stages of its expansion proposal.

On Feb. 21, it announced it was “encouraged by the positive commercial response we received from our customers for a proposal to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline system,” said Lexa Hobenshield, its manager of external relations, in an email.

“Our next step is to prepare initial project designs and determine the scope and requirements of the proposed project. We anticipate making an announcement on the scope of the proposed project later this spring.”

Following that, it will be 18 to 24 months before it files a comprehensive application with the NEB to initiate the required regulatory review.

“We will undertake extensive environmental, socio-economic and other assessments and an open and thorough engagement process with communities along the pipeline route and the marine corridor as well as First Nations, industry, governments, and non-government organizations,” Hobenshield said. “We will be transparent in following up on how we have considered and incorporated input received.”

She confirmed there are places along the existing right-of-way where the route of the new pipe would need to change due to factors such as “urban infill” and it “will be engaged with our landowners in discussions about routing in the coming months.”

As for safety, she said, “The Trans Mountain pipeline has a safe and efficient track record.”

Pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to transport large volumes of crude oil and natural gas over land, she said, adding the company has also been “safely loading oil tankers at Westridge Marine Terminal for almost 60 years.” Kinder Morgan has also actively participated in a five-year process to strengthen existing safety procedures for navigation of Second Narrows.

“In our business, we don’t own the product we transport nor the vessels that visit our marine terminal. We are, in essence, the taxi or railroad for our products. We respond to the market. The market tells us where they want to move their product, and then we work with others like the port authority and the B.C. Coast Pilots to ensure that this is done as safely as possible.

“Canadian producers are looking for more markets, beyond the Canadian and U.S. markets so we see growth in exports. Canada is an exporting and trading country. If oil is moving to markets outside of Canada we want to provide a very safe, reliable option for that to occur.”

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