Hundreds of steel fittings currently in use in major Canadian pipelines are at risk of swelling or breaking if they’re put under enough pressure, according to a new National Energy Board report. The NEB says it isn’t concerned that the pipelines are in any immediate danger, even though the fittings fall short of Canadian manufacturing standards.
The embattled federal regulator believes the faulty fittings “should still be able to move oil and gas and withstand the outside pressure caused by storms, floods, earthquakes, temperature changes, and other natural events,” CBC News reports.
“Steel is a wonderful substance. It’s very forgiving. It gives you plenty of warning,” said NEB Chief Engineer Iain Colquhoun. “There is considerable conservatism in the standards of how we design things. So there is a margin [for error] within the design.”
The question of faulty pipeline components first came up in 2013, after a TransCanada gas pipeline southwest of Fort McMurray burst. A Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded some of the joints in the line had swelled, but that wasn’t the cause of the incident.
“That’s when NEB engineers stepped up their efforts to identify the problem by taking a closer look at how the fittings were produced by manufacturers around the world,” CBC reports. The board’s investigators “concluded the problem resulted mainly from changes in manufacturing processes as companies began using more high-strength fittings about a decade ago,” writes reporter Kyle Bakx. “The different manufacturing method was producing pipeline parts that were weaker than required,” leading to “problems with inappropriate water temperatures, uneven heating, and improper tempering time, among others.”
But while some of the fittings now in use in Canada have been strengthened, most of them have been left alone. “The fittings in the ground can be addressed with enhanced inspection,” Colquhoun said. “We want to get ahead of this, but it is not an immediate danger.”
He added that “there has not been a failure in service due to the issue we are addressing. Some say, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But we understand the physics, so we’ve taken the ‘let’s fix it before it’s broken’ approach.”