Battle for Pipeline Safety: The Front Lines are Below the Surface

Heating our homes during a brutal Canadian winter. Moving Canada’s oil and gas riches to tidewater. Providing well-paid jobs and training opportunities for skilled tradespeople. If we were placing an order at Tim Horton’s, this would be a “triple-triple”. While coffee may offer a life line to some of us, Canada’s true life lines run below the surface, in the multitude of pipelines that criss-cross our country.

From the modest beginning in 1853 of a natural gas pipeline in Trois-Rivières, there are today about 825,000 kilometres of transmission, gathering and distribution lines transporting crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products to markets throughout Canada.

The good news is that the vast majority of Canada’s pipelines operate safely. Indeed, according to National Energy Board (NEB) data, 99.99996% of oil transported via pipelines regulated by the NEB is moved without leaks from the pipe body. But we cannot afford to be smug. Legislators, the Canadian public, and the international community are attuned to pipelines and pipeline safety like never before.

The array of areas where fundamental public policy issues intersect with debates on pipelines and the safe transport of oil is breathtaking: Canada-U.S. relations, Canada’s economic and fiscal outlook and budgetary planning, foreign investment, the environment, social license to operate, aboriginal relations, infrastructure spending, and the pipeline versus rail debate, to name a few.

The federal government is pursuing Bill C-46, the Pipeline Safety Act, provincial governments are taking a more active role in the review process of major pipelines, and many municipalities are consulting with stakeholders on zoning issues around pipelines to ensure public safety.

When an issue spans from the local to the international with consequences ranging from environmental to human safety, where exactly are the front lines of pipeline safety?

Reports from the NEB and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) show decreases in pipeline incidents over the past three decades – pipelines in Canada are safe and getting safer. But another trend exists: when leaks and ruptures do unfortunately occur one culprit has become the leading cause – corrosion.

Corrosion was at the heart of a significant controversy in 2009 when a pipeline in Peace River, Alberta ruptured; the NEB concluded that the root cause was corrosion, as were 16 previous leaks and 6 previous ruptures. Similarly, the 2011 explosion at the Regina Consumers’ Co-operative Refineries that injured 52 people was triggered by internal corrosion in a six-inch pipe.

NACE International, the world’s leading experts on corrosion, concludes that protective coatings are the single most important factor in preventing corrosion. And while the technologies surrounding coatings have advanced, the primary determinant as to whether a coating will prove successful is the quality with which it is applied.

With conclusive evidence identifying (1) corrosion as the leading challenge in the preventative component of pipeline safety and (2) that the skill of tradespeople applying the protective coatings is the critical component for limiting the impact of corrosion, discussions on pipeline safety must examine what is being done to ensure Canada has the most skilled coaters and painters in the world.

And on this front, there is great reason for optimism. It has been five years since the Coating Application Specialist (CAS) certification was established in the United States; it is now being introduced in Canada. Through the CAS certification process, specialists go through rigorous written and practical examinations and extensive on-the-job hours.

Although protecting infrastructure from corrosion is important in all cases (the dollars wasted as a result of failing to protect against corrosion is astronomical), there are instances where having highly skilled applicators can make the difference between safety and big trouble. In the case of pipelines, two such cases are in high-density municipalities and along critical waterways.

When pipelines cross waterways, the need to mitigate against corrosion is multiplied. The presence of water makes corrosion a much higher probability, and the increased potential damage to the environment and human safety requires that only tradespeople with the highest level of training should be trusted to safeguard these pipelines. Similarly, where pipelines travel near high-density municipalities, the consequences of human error are magnified. The CAS certification ensures that each tradesperson applying protective coatings has the training, experience, and knowledge required to protect critical infrastructure such as pipelines. Moreover, developing this advanced, professional training promotes the value of skilled trades in Canada.

There can be little doubt that the tradespeople applying coatings to pipelines across Canada are working on the front lines of pipeline safety; ensuring that each one is appropriately trained is mission critical.


Jack White

Assistant to the General President, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades