What Energy East might really cost us all

What Energy East might really cost us all
Posted on October 3, 2013 | James Mihaychuk | Written on October 2, 2013
Comments
Letter type:
Personal

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

I recently took a short canoe trip from Baxter Conservation area to the point on the Rideau River where the existing TransCanada natural gas pipeline crosses the river. If the Energy East project were to be approved, this pipeline would be converted to carry tar sands bitumen with an extension through Quebec and New Brunswick. The area on the river near Baxter Conservation Area would be most at risk, but the whole of the Rideau River waterway would be affected. The Rideau River and Canal are important tourist, recreational and natural areas with an important role in our heritage. For this reason they carry the triple designation of Canadian Heritage Waterway, National Historic Site of Canada and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Here is what I sent to my representatives:

David McGuinty, MP, Ottawa South - Liberal
John Fraser, MPP, Ottawa South - Liberal
Maria McRae, Councillor for River Ward, Chair of Environment Committee

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Please read on for some remarks that I recently shared with my councillor in River Ward, Maria McRae, regarding the proposed Energy East pipeline conversion project. Please make a responsible response to this project a key part of your discussions within your caucus.

I understand that the Energy East pipeline proposal has been the subject of recent City Hall lobbying by both TransCanada and Enbridge. I would encourage you to make a very thorough study of the Energy East project and to understand its implications for Ottawans.

As you will already know, the Energy East project involves the conversion of a pipeline that is approximately 50 years old to carry tar sands synthetic crude oil instead of natural gas.

The Ottawa Citizen reports that Enbridge has already indicated that Energy East will result in a shortfall of natural gas supply in Eastern Ontario. According to Enbridge, this will result in higher prices to Ottawans for home heating. I am eager for there to be a meaningful discussion in our city that includes these costs to our residents and to the city, as well as the risk to wildlife, property, heritage and our tourist industry.

I recently visited Baxter Conservation Area and took a short tour by canoe of the area about 200 m downstream where the existing natural gas pipeline crosses the Rideau River. This area includes the conservation area, many homes, an airstrip for gliders, fishing and boating, and wildlife such as the Great Blue Heron. Again, I will send photos separately. I would encourage you to take a drive to the area yourself now that we are enjoying such fair autumn weather.

The federal Transportation Safety Board provides incident reports online that describe pipeline breech events in many parts of the country going back several years. According to these reports, major natural gas leaks often had residents raise the alarms due to smoke and/or flame. Following the initial call, it typically takes 30 to 45 minutes for an initial response by the pipeline company to occur in non-remote areas.

I have particular concerns about a toxic spill of dilbit in or near the Rideau River. Since synthetic crude oil is less flammable than methane, we cannot expect to rely on smoke or flame to alert area residents to a spill. Recent spills in the USA illustrate that such a spill is a very real possibility with lengthy and costly clean ups that involve serious health-related & financial impacts.

I would also like to understand how much of any clean up costs would fall on area tax payers. Would the City, NCC, Parks Canada, or other agencies be expected to implement new equipment or procedures to protect the river and canal? How will we secure the "triple crown" status of the Rideau River and Rideau Canal, which is a National Historic Site of Canada, Canadian Heritage River, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

In addition, there is, of course, the larger issue of climate change. Given the recent publication of the latest IPCC assessment, the need for urgent action to combat climate change caused by burning fossil fuels demands a real shift in priorities by politicians representing all levels of government. In response to the persistent climate crisis, it is quite possible that tar sands crude in particular may be subject to bans or restrictions in many export markets in the next few years. If so, risking the health of the Rideau and the viability of our local tourism & recreation industries seems like a very dubious proposition.

Again, this is a ballot box issue for me. It is related to leaving a healthy legacy to my kids and to the community as a whole. Ottawa has a very highly educated population with many politically engaged people well versed in these complex issues. I can confidently assert that I am not alone in my views.

Please let me know how you intend to act with regard to Energy East.

Many thanks,
James

About The Author

mihaychuk's picture

 I am interested in sustainability, civic engagement and democratic renewal. You might meet me at the soccer pitch, at the Farmers Market, or walking or biking on local trails.
I'm a high-tech veteran and have... More

Comments

Liz Couture

Thank you, James, and I'm sure many such letters have been written by residents from all over Canada to their respective councillors. I would be interested in knowing the details of what the response of your councillor will be. Please post again in the near future.

James, Having met you, I know that you are a physicist and a man who believes strongly in the benefits of the scientific method.

Unfortunately, you are not a pipeline engineer or an energy economist. If you were, you would not have written this letter.

Applications to build, expand, or reverse oil and natural gas pipelines that cross interprovincial or international boundaries must be reviewed by the National Energy Board. The NEB was established by the federal government in the early 1950's. It is an independent, expert, quasi-judicial body that considers applications on their merits. It thoroughly reviews these applications in terms of their economic, financial, safety, engineering, and environmental implications and makes a judgment on whether a certificate should be granted, granted with conditions, or rejected. If it considers that a certificate may be granted or granted with conditions, the NEB passes this recommendation to the federal Cabinet, usually through both the Ministers of Natural Resources and Environment. I think there has been only once in sixty years that a federal Cabinet has not approved a NEB recommendation.

The NEB is a thoroughly professional body that evaluates applications based on the evidence. It is also quasi-judicial, as I noted previously, meaning that those who oppose an application van file comments or intervene and cross-examine the proponents. The NEB process is an example of good government, where decisions are based on facts and professional judgments, not partisan political activity.

Why politicize a sound public policy process?

First, we'll have to see what the NEB comes up with. But given the number of pipeline spills over the same time period you note, when, as you say, almost all pipeline projects have been approved by the Board, I would suggest that the Board's mandate may need to be re-evaluated or reformed just like the Ontario Municipal Board, another quasi-legal Board, that most definately needs to be either completely eliminated or significantly reformed because it no longer protects citizens but rather imposes the will of the industry on citizens and even municipal governments.

Of course the development industry in Ontario and the poltiical parties who benfit from their election campaign donations don't want the OMB to undergo change, despite the fact that just about every community (neighborhood) association in the province thinks otherwise.

In a similar way, I can see that the oil and pipeline companies, in conjunction with a pro-oil government, would not want the Nation Energy Board to be reformed or have its mandate changed. Nevetheless, I have serious doubts about the ability of any organization, legal or otherwise, that approves everything that comes before it becasuse it makes me think they are not acting in the public's best interest but rather in the best interest of the oil industry alone, just like the OMB does now for the development industry. 

You seem to be under a false impression regarding the number of pipeline spills in Canada. The Transportation Safety Board reports on pipeline spills are available on-line. For the most recent year available (2012), the Board reported 154 "incidents" involving oil pipelines in Canada. Ninety-six per cent of those incidents were cases in which less than one cubic metre of oil was released. In only two incidents was there a release of more than 26 cubic metres of oil. When one considers that in Canada we have 19,000 kilometres of active oil pipelines transporting 1.2 billion barrels of oil annually, that is a quite remarkable demonstration that pipelines are far and away the safest way to transport oil. Those are the facts.

Hi Bob,

Thanks for taking the time to meet informally last week.

In my letter, I wanted to encourage my representatives to consider the Energy East project carefully. Most of all I asked them to consider the need to protect the economic and heritage value of the Rideau River.

Most of all, I would not want our area ever to have a repeat of the incident on the Kalmazoo River in Michigan (that incident involved Enbridge). You can read information provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency regarding the Kalamazoo spill and clean-up online at the address below. The Kalmazoo spill released 843,000 gallons according to the EPA (about 3 190 cubic meters).

http://www.epa.gov/enbridgespill/

This Saturday I took another trip to Kars and Osgoode to call on people who live near the existing natural gas pipeline crossing of the Rideau near McGahey's Bend and the Baxter Conservation Area. The people that I met shared my concerns with the proposed Energy East project. I was pleased to find that they were taking an interest.

Based on the history at the NEB that you describe, I agree with you that it is most likely that the Energy East project will get approved expeditiously. If so, our region shall soon have tar sands bitumen piped under the Rideau River. The same will apply to other areas and their local local waterways.

My hope is that the design of the proposed pipeline will implement the best possible monitoring, control, and clean-up systems. Perhaps you or others from the pipeline industry that you know would care to comment in that regard.

At first glance, it appears that the existing installations around Baxter Conservation Area (Kars, #1218) and Rideau River Road (Osgoode, #1219) do not incorporate any video surveillance or emergency call boxes. Station 1218 is easily accessible from the Baxter Conservation Area. Station 1219 is easily reached from the road and the adjacent snowmobile trail. Perhaps the installation of more remote monitoring equipment at future installations would help to improve incident response.

My scan of a number of Transportation Safety Board reports regarding pipeline breech incidents showed that there is often a delay between local trouble reports and the arrival of emergency responders from the pipeline companies. In some reported incidents, natural gas pipeline ruptures had associated smoke and/or flame that prompted a call for emergency response from local residents. The response time after the visible signs and reports from people in the area was about 30 to 45 minutes in the reports that I read.

For your reference, you can review the TSB reports online using the following link:
http://www.bst-tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/pipeline/

I am concerned that a bitumen spill, on the other hand, could go undetected for a longer period of time since heavier and less flammable materials are involved. I would be interested to learn more about what type of remote monitoring, controls, and clean up measures are proposed for the Kars-Osgoode area. How would those measures differ from what was present in the incident along the Kalamazoo River in 2010?

Best regards,
James

P.S.

Bob, with respect, the onus here is not on me to be an expert on TransCanada's business or to make their case for them. Indeed, to your point, I agree with you that the onus is, in fact, on TransCanada to prove that they are complying with all best practices as regulated by the NEB. I would also suggest that it is in the best interest of TransCanada and their supporters in the community to engage constructively with people who take a different approach to the issues.

My letter did not suggest a specific course of action for any of my elected representatives. Nor did it discuss the legitimacy of the NEB or it's processes. Perhaps you could contribute your own letter on that topic.

I do hope that you are not suggesting that citizens should have blind faith in the expertise of the NEB or any other body. The natural inclination of a scientist, on the contrary, is to question all sources of information. We are taught to scrutinize methods & findings, including our own and those of close colleagues. That scrutiny is part of the process whereby how rare scientific charlatans are exposed, e.g. the infamous claims by Stanley Pons regarding cold fusion.

Furthermore, I don’t think that type of critical thinking is exclusive to scientists or to any particular group. Independent thought is essential to a free and democratic society and ought to be encouraged.

P.P.S.
I have never indulged in questioning your professional background. I would therefore ask you to show me the same courtesy in future.

However, since you raised the point, I will, of course, acknowledge that I am not a pipeline engineer. I was not aware that only pipeline engineers and economists were entitled to comment on public affairs, so I am really not sure what you intended by those remarks.

As you know, I earned a Ph.D. in Physics (U. of Toronto, 1998). From that time I have a solid experimental & applied research background. I have also been privileged to have strong industrial experience in device design, materials & device analysis, consulting, and product management.

Reflecting on my time as a graduate student, at U of T I was pleased to work with on the Central Academic & Administrative Health & Safety Committee. There people of many backgrounds collaborated to improve safety: industrial hygienists, white collar workers, scientists, engineers. The committee members included staff, professors, and union representatives. I am ethically bound not to elaborate on specific cases, but serious incidents can and do arise in research intensive facilities. The committee met regularly to review incident reports and to follow up on means to prevent any recurrence. My work with that group encouraged and inspired me to work conscientiously and safely throughout my career.

On a more technical level, your remarks also reminded me that one of my earliest co-authored peer-reviewed articles (1995) related to non-invasive measurements of the surface properties of dilute alloys of magnesium in aluminium. That work was one of several that came about thanks to a collaborator from industry working together with my thesis advisor. Since then, I have analyzed many other metals in the context of the semiconductor industry. Perhaps now I shall have to spend more time and effort to learn about steel in the context of pipelines.

A link to that 1995 paper for posterity and in case you are interested.
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0039602895900276

I was also reminded that the same article used Arrhenius plots. These are plots of logarithm of a reaction rate vs. the reciprocal of the absolute temperature. Such plots are used to derive the thermal activation energy of a particular physical process. It is an interesting bit of scientific history that it was also Svante Arrhenius who in 1895 proposed the role of carbon dioxide in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, he was the scientific father of the science of greenhouse gases.

The question of credentials also suggests another possibility to me. Perhaps I ought to reach out to other scientists and engineers: chemists, physicists, metallurgists, materials scientists, etc. to share information & expertise regarding pipeline materials, welds, corrosion resistance, and reliability. Then we would all have the benefit of more information and more perspective on the technical issues involved.

James,

I did not intend to question your right to comment publicly on any and all subjects. Sorry if you read it that way. I merely was suggesting that the concerns you raised about pipeline safety, spill prevention and spill cleanup can best be addressed by pipeline engineers and by regulators such as the National Energy Board who have the public mandate to do so.

I do not speak for the pipeline companies, but I have worked in the field of energy economics long enough to know about both the benefits and costs of different forms of oil transportation. Transportation by pipeline is the safest, most environmentally responsible and lowest cost way to transport oil to market. Pipeline companies are bound to operate according to the standards of the Canadian Standards Association. The 750-page CSA Z662-11 standard covers the design, construction, operation and maintenance of oil and natural gas pipelines.

Pipelines are also regulated by the National Energy Board in terms of inspection and enforcement. The NEB is constantly updating its requirements and approaches. See, for example, the NEB Action Plan on safety and Environmental Protection, which can be viewed here:
http://www.neb-one.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rsftyndthnvrnmnt/sfty/ctnpln2011_2012-e...

Pipeline companies have computerized systems for monitoring flows in the pipe and detecting changes that might signify a leak. They also have teams in place that are responsible to act quickly should a leak occur. As I noted in a separate comment, the performance of the Canadian pipeline industry in avoiding leaks is amazingly good, especially considering that the system transports 1.2 billion barrels of oil per year.

That does not mean, of course, that a spill cannot happen. There are no guarantees in life about anything. However, given all the measures that are in place to prevent spills and to cope with them when they happen, it makes sense to support a pipeline project that will offer many millions of dollars of economic benefits.

Rolly Montpellier

James,

You certainly are not alone in your views. And you're doing well by raising the issues associated with the Energy East conversion project.

The reality is that pipelines will be part of our energy landscape for some years to come. My frustration centers more on the fact that Canada is doing virtually nothing to begin a process of conversion or transitioning to a post-carbon era. Our focus is on the Oil Sands and getting the product to markets.

When the world moves ahead with a cost on carbon, a threshold will be reached where the focus will flip to renewables. Canada will be left holding the fossil fuel bag.

David J Wilson

re: "Enbridge has already indicated that Energy East will result in a shortfall of natural gas supply in Eastern Ontario."

And that will mean that Ontario will have to start using more imported gas from the US that is produced by "fracking" and has a much larger carbon footprint than the current energy mix in Ontario. The IPCC has just updated it's Global Warming Potential for methane (that escapes from fracked gas wells) to 87 times that of CO2 for 20 year timeframes. The short term ratio is over 100. This will be a huge step back for the province.