BP Canada's Ethane Fire Reduced, Some Pipes Restarted

The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) last week assumed the lead role to direct operations following the uncontrolled release Aug. 26 of storage cavern ethane and the resulting fire from two wellheads at BP Canada's natural gas liquids plant near Fort Saskatchewan, AB. While there were no reported injuries, EUB said the incident is "impacting other petroleum operations within the province involving both upstream natural gas liquids production and downstream natural gas liquids product use."

The fire is on the same site as a major pipeline hub that distributes gas products in northern Alberta to plants in southern Canada. As of last Wednesday, all pipelines in and out of the BP Canada plant had been shut down, including the Cochin pipeline that connects three plants and transports gas to Ontario. Transport also was disrupted on the West Pembina, Niton and Mitswan pipes, EUB said.

However, Richard Hookway, BP's vice president of North American NGLs said the company has now made "great strides...on many fronts." He said the well control team, composed of more than 100 BP employees, had been able to reduce the size of the ethane leak and resulting fire from one of the wells. Also, BP operations by Thursday had continued start-up operations on many of the pipe systems that had been shut down

The Alberta Ethane Gathering System (AEGS), the system that transports ethane within British Columbia, was fully operational by late Thursday, except for the affected storage cavern. The Cochrane-Edmonton pipe system, which transports Alberta natural gas liquids (NGLs) to Fort Saskatchewan was running at about 40% capacity on Friday. It is bypassing Fort Saskatchewan and delivering NGLs directly to the Enbridge pipe system until BP's system is fully operational.

The Cochin system, a 3,100 kilometer line that transports ethane, ethylene and propane from Fort Saskatchewan to Eastern Canada and the United States was undergoing a complete safety analysis, and if it goes well, BP said it hoped to have the system fully operational by the weekend.

Operations affected already by the explosion include Dow Chemical's Fort Saskatchewan plant, which has had about 60% of its ethane supply shut in. It still has enough stored for about two or three weeks, but after that, plant spokeswoman Nancy Fullerton said, "We'll be looking at some contingencies."

In Joffre, south of Edmonton, Nova's chemical complex had so far escaped any problems, but a spokesman there said that if the fire continues for "any length of time," Nova could be affected. In the meantime, EUB said that most of northern Alberta's plants are still producing gas products, but said they could run out of storage space before the fire is out.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. At the time of the explosion, the plant, which is northeast of Edmonton, had an estimated 160,000 cubic meters of ethane gas in it. The wells are connected to a storage cavern about 2,000 meters underground, which can hold up to 1 million bbl.

EUB said that the emergency response by the City of Fort Saskatchewan was appropriate, and noted that most of the smoke from the fire, which continues to burn, has been eliminated. However, BP Canada said one option is to let the fire burn itself out, which could take a month, and now EUB personnel are meeting with BP Canada to evaluate potential well control alternatives. The problem now looming is that the uncontrolled fire and the facility's location have resulted in several natural gas pipelines being shut in.

"This is impacting both upstream gas plants that produce NGLs and rely on the pipelines to transport them, and downstream petrochemical plants that rely on the now shut-in pipelines for delivery of NGL feedstocks," EUB said in a statement. Because of the impact, EUB, BP Canada and other government agencies are reviewing options for both the upstream and downstream plants. Among other things, the options for affected plants include the following:

  • Allow upstream gas plants there to flare NGL products;
  • Relax pipeline product specifications to allow excess NGLs into natural gas streams;
  • Redirect NGL flows through the province's pipeline network; and/or
  • Curtail downstream NGL supply where necessary.

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