The chief executives of Canada’s five biggest pipeline companies last week vowed to elevate safety to a top priority.

National Energy Board (NEB) members Georgette Habib and Bob Vergette presided over the solemn occasion as moderators of a presidents’ panel that opened a two-day safety forum on possibilities for new or improved regulation.

Participants included Ian Anderson of Kinder Morgan Canada, Greg Ebel of Spectra Energy Corp., Russ Girling of TransCanada PipeLines, Terrance Kutryk of Alliance Pipeline and Al Monaco of Enbridge Inc. The corporate chieftains made their commitments while television cameras and tape recorders ran, before NEB Chairman Gaeton Caron and a sold-out crowd of more than 400 industry, community and government representatives.

“If we’re not safe, we don’t build,” said Anderson, whose company recently filed a C$5 billion-plus plan to triple capacity to 890,000 b/d on the Trans Mountain Pipeline from the Alberta capital of Edmonton to a tanker terminal in British Columbia’s (BC) largest harbor at Vancouver. “Safety discipline is the first priority.”

Canadian pipelines are being reborn into a new reliability and safety era, said Monaco. “We’re making a jump from one that celebrates statistical success to one that strives for zero incidents.”

Enbridge is entering the final argument stage of hotly contested approval hearings on its Northern Gateway proposal for an oilsands conduit from Edmonton to a new tanker terminal on the northern Pacific Coast at Kitimat, BC. The years-long regulatory marathon turned into an ordeal following the biggest accident in the Enbridge system’s history since the early 1950s, a 21,000 bbl spill in Michigan into the Kalamazoo River that coincided with the lethal 2010 BP plc Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We took a very long look in the mirror as a company,” Monaco said. “We simply had to change.” New procedures and attitudes are developing as a corporate initiative titled “Our Path to Zero,” the Enbridge variation on a theme sounded by all the Canadian pipelines.

“Our goal is zero incidents,” said Ebel, whose Spectra operations span the continent from its Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and New England to its Westcoast transportation and processing network in BC. “Nothing less is worth striving for.”

Previous-generation Canadian pipeline goals that emphasized the statistical rarity of low-probability, high-damage events implied that pipelines accepted periodic failures as inevitable or normal aspects of standard operating practices, said the Spectra president.

“Public confidence has been shaken severely and quite deservedly,” said Girling, whose TransCanada system is embroiled in years-long regulatory battles to build its proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from the northern Alberta oilsands across the United States to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coast. “We need to work together as an industry. If we don’t regain public confidence, we’ll lose our social license to operate.”

The new Canadian pipeline sector mantra says that “all accidents are preventable; zero incidents is our goal.”

Kutryk, whose Alliance has delivered 1.6 Bcf/d of liquids-rich gas to Chicago from northern BC and Alberta since 1999 without an unintended release, said, “For pipeline companies, safety must be an absolute” and “nothing else is more important.” He suggested the ironclad industry standards should include a rule: “It’s never acceptable to cut corners at the expense of safety.”

The forum where the pipeline chiefs made their vows was among a series of NEB initiatives to implement a regulatory reform bill that the Conservative government in Ottawa enacted in mid-2012. The legislation infuriated environmental groups by restricting full participation in regulatory cases to groups or individuals that are directly affected by projects or that can show they have relevant expertise (see NGI, June 3).

However, the reform package also laid the groundwork for toughened industry policing by raising the NEB’s budget, increasing the board’s staff of inspection and enforcement officials, and sharpening the agency’s teeth by giving it power to levy stiff administrative penalties for failure to comply with regulations.

The NEB highlighted determination to raise pipeline safety standards by making an example of a lapse. The board posted results of an investigation into two winter brushes with danger on the Enbridge system, at the same as the pipeline presidents made their public commitments of improved performance.

At the Edmonton inlet to its oil lines, Enbridge reported “overpressure incidents” to the NEB in January and March. No catastrophic ruptures resulted, but pressure inside the pipe shot up to 116% of the regulated maximum operating level in one case and 121% in another.

The “overpressure issues represent potentially systemic noncompliances,” NEB said. The board fired off an order for Enbridge to develop a plan for preventing overpressure incidents. The document also reminded Canadian pipeline companies that they are all expected to comply with the operating standards laid out for Enbridge.

As the pipeline presidents lined up to declare commitments, Caron said, “This forum is only the first step towards building a pervasive culture of safety across industry…We expect pipeline company executives to set performance measures that provide a complete view of their organization’s current state of safety in order to identify areas of weakness and to proactively manage safety before an incident occurs.”

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