Pipeline Explosion Highlights Need for Smarter Technologies

Warning Sign on Petroleum Refinery Fence

By Justin Bull

January 30, 2014

For 13 hours a massive fireball burned 50km south of Winnipeg. A TransCanada pipeline exploded at 1:05am on January 25th, lighting up the night sky like a massive butane torch.

Although no one was harmed, local residents faced severe gas shortages amid freezing temperatures outside. TransCanada used trucks to deliver gas to local hospitals and care centers, while the rest of Manitoba was being asked to reduce gas usage while supplies were assessed.

The explosion highlights the inherent danger of transporting combustible fuels. This important, as British Columbia is in the midst of a natural gas boom, with hydraulic fracturing and LNG (liquefied natural gas) leading the way.

The National Energy Board (NEB) has granted seven export permits that could potentially deliver 14.6 billion cubic feet of gas to foreign markets by 2020. To reach that target would require exporting 50% more gas than Canada currently produces. Meeting that export target, while continuing to supply Canada’s own natural gas needs, presents a massive challenge. 

In order to ramp up supplies, upfield companies – those actually extracting gas from the ground – will have to hugely increase production. Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) has unlocked reserves of gas 4km beneath the earth’s surface, requiring ever-growing sums of water and chemicals to extract, potentially contaminating water tables and drinking supplies.

But exporting LNG, proponents argue, helps developing countries like China shift away from coal, which is even more polluting. In some circles, natural gas has now become a “clean fuel”, subsuming a term normally reserved for renewable energy.

LNG projects in BC are attracting tens of billions of dollars of investments from around the world, with Petronas, a Malaysian company, leading the way. These investments dollars are trickling down to communities in Northern BC, which are experiencing an unprecedented economic boom.

When it comes to fossil fuels in Canada, heavy bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands tends to get the most attention. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline has been a lightning rod of controversy, as First Nations groups and environmentalists rally to oppose the project.

Companies like Chevron, Apache, TransCanada and Pacific NorthWest LNG are investing heavily in efforts to consult with local communities and First Nations to secure their support. Pipelines moving heavy bitumen, like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL, are coming under heavy scrutiny at the moment. No matter the fuel, guaranteeing safe transportation will be key to obtaining the license to proceed.