Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) has quietly stopped requiring pipeline companies to post the geographic coordinates of repairs, DeSmog Canada has learned.
The federal pipeline regulator cites “public safety” as the reason for deciding to limit information on the specific location of “integrity digs” to examine cracks, corrosion or dents — but critics argue the decision compromises the ability of Canadians to access information about the safety of pipelines.
Often times, hundreds of integrity digs will take place in certain areas of pipeline, raising questions about the quality of that section of line, said Emily Ferguson, an environmental consultant and founder of Line 9 Communities.
“When you see integrity data on a map, you can see these clusters of where there might be issues,” Ferguson said. “I think that’s something that is obviously in the best interest of the pipeline companies not to have that publicly released.”
Integrity Digs Used to Patch and Repair Faulty Pipelines
Integrity digs are conducted by pipeline companies when their “in-line inspection” tool — often a “smart pig” that travels inside the pipe without disrupting flow — flags an anomaly.
An integrity dig exposes the pipeline and allows for maintenance such as patching and other repairs.
Until recently, the National Energy Board published the GPS coordinates of these digs — but sometime in the last few months, the board quietly began allowing companies to keep that information secret.
“There are places where the drinking water is only a couple of feet deep under the surface, where the pipe is, depending on the time of year, actually lying below the water table,” said Ian Stephen, campaign director of the Chilliwack-based WaterWealth Project.
“I think it’s a very legitimate concern for the public to want to be able to verify that best practices are used in any kind of maintenance work that goes on around here.”
In 2015 DeSmog Canada revealed that the National Energy Board allowed Kinder Morgan to keep its oil spill response plans for the Trans Mountain pipeline secret, while the response plan for the same pipeline was publicly available across the border in Washington state. At the time, the NEB claimed “security concerns” prevented the company from making the plan publicly available. After a media storm, the NEB announced last year that it will now require companies to disclose their oil spill response plans publicly.
NEB and Kinder Morgan Point to Alleged Safety Risks
A spokesperson from the NEB told DeSmog Canada via e-mail that it “removed the coordinates of this type of work from its information to avoid a safety risk of the public accessing worksites.”
The spokesperson noted that “companies are expected to notify nearby landowners, indigenous groups and other affected parties” when activities such as integrity digs are being conducted.
In response to a query about its requests for confidential operations and maintenance filings, a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan told DeSmog Canada, “the safety and security of our of our pipeline, staff and the communities we operate in is our top priority.”
Neither the NEB nor Kinder Morgan provided examples of recent safety risks due to posting geographic coordinates of integrity digs.
Stephen noted the decision by the NEB to no longer require geographic coordinates for integrity digs happened shortly after Kinder Morgan filed two requests for “confidential treatment of filings related to proposed Operations and Maintenance (O&M) activities to be undertaken along the Trans Mountain Pipeline System.”
While the specific requests were denied by the NEB, Stephen suggests it’s a case of “tail wags dog with our industry-captured regulator.” A federal panel recently recommended that the National Energy Board be replaced by a new commission and be moved from Calgary, home to the majority of Canada's oil and gas industry headquarters, to Ottawa.
“In our consultations we heard of a National Energy Board that has fundamentally lost the confidence of many Canadians,” the five-member panel wrote. “We heard that Canadians have serious concerns that the NEB has been ‘captured’ by the oil and gas industry.”
Geographic Coordinates Allow Public to Track Pipeline Problems
It’s still possible to track down information on when the digs are scheduled to happen, as well as the location based on mileposts, girth welds and legal subdivisions — but not via specific coordinates.
Companies will sometimes provide maps, some with street names and others without.
“It’s not always presented in a way that anybody could understand,” Ferguson said.
Stephen suggests this matters more than ever, especially given the current push to expand the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline system.
“Trust goes two ways: if you want us to trust you then show us, because their past maintenance history is the best indicator I think of how much weight their claims that the new pipe will be safe will be given,” he said.
Integrity Digs Only Posted If Near Residences, Schools, Water Bodies
The geographic coordinates issue is only one of many issues the NEB has with transparency around integrity digs, Ferguson said.
Integrity digs are only required to be posted under certain parameters, including when the “exposure of the pipe” occurs within 200 metres of residences, schools, hospitals, prisons or “other institutions where people “routinely congregate in large groups” of 50 people or more, or within 30 metres of a wetland or waterbody.
That means there’s likely a whole lot more happening than we know about. After all, Canada is a large country with great swathes of low-density occupation, meaning that many integrity digs would be unreported.
Ferguson adds that any pipeline replacement less than 40 kilometres in length can proceed without a public hearing; she says that she’s seen hillsides of 10 or more integrity digs in a row, suggesting the company is patching the pipeline instead of replacing a section that would require a public hearing.
“I wish that there was change in the rules where if you had a certain amount of digs within a certain distance, it would open up to more of a public hearing,” she said.
“There’s so much that flies under the radar.”
Image: Integrity dig on a pipeline. Photo: Canadian Energy Pipeline Association